Published in Panhandler Issue 1
Jason Ockert is the author of Rabbit Punches, a collection of stories published by Low Fidelity Press. His stories have appeared in The Oxford American, McSweeney’s, Mid-American Review, Black Warrior Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and many other places. “Drifting” is a chapter from his recently completed novel, Passers-by.
The expressway is busy with vacationers on their way to OceanNation for the fireworks display. The show is supposed to be spectacular—rain or shine. Bored clouds overhead shrug.
Bister has to eat his dinner quickly between cars. He knows better than to expect to see Mindy. He gets mustard on his lower lip and although the driver of a gold-colored Maxima tries to point it out, Bister’s eyes are elsewhere—the sharp angle of a bird slashes the thick, acrid air—and the car chugs forward.
Many cars that pass today are named after celestial bodies. The small talk Bister hears from drivers who feel obligated to say something when they pay the toll has moved from sympathy for the accident victims on the Expressway to consternation about Arabelle:
“They say the hurricane is on course for this area,” an auto mechanic in a Saturn says.
“My friends in South Florida purchased airline tickets to Connecticut for the week just in case,” a retired nurse in an Aerostar offers. “I’m thinking of taking the train to Topeka to see my brother.”
“If I were you,” a woman with un-even bangs driving a Mercury mentions, “I’d keep an eye on the sky. I read somewhere that tornadoes precede hurricanes. Your little booth wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Arabelle’s a pretty, pretty name,” a middle-aged yellow-haired man with Illinois tags on his Nova says wistfully.
When it’s time, the light in the booth pops on. The cars thin out. Factory smoke from Brunswick steals a streak of color from the sunset. Momentary silence swallows Bister. He tries to ignore the sneaking suspicion that the child in the brush is back—just there on the cusp of the day.
The next car to come through, a Sky Lark, is dolled up in patriotism—there’s an American flag draped across the dash and the driver has written, “God Bless America!” with shaving cream on the windows. The man is in a hurry. Because his daughter was putting on make-up, they have gotten a late start. If they’re going to make it to OceanNation for the fireworks they’re going to have to fly. He hands Bister a buck.
Bister says, “There are so many different shades of brown. My mom could name them all.”
The man in the Sky Lark furrows his brow.
“The first memory I have is when I was baptized in the murky shallows of the Chattahoochee,” Bister says. “I was three. To think about that time now, everything’s still crystal clear in a blurry way, if you know what I mean.”
The man looks over at his daughter in the passenger seat who is fiddling with her cell phone.
“My parents took me down to the river’s edge with five or six sets of parents and children. There was also a burly born-again cane farmer wearing overalls and muttering to himself as we arrived.” As the memories start to clarify, Bister raises his voice. He looks at a miniature Statue of Liberty dangling from the rear-view mirror in the Sky Lark. “Sure,” the man says, “happy Indy day.”
Bister raises the gate and continues with his story. He tries to tell it better than he did yesterday. Better, as in, more right. In saying it a second time, the memories are shored up. The things that were, for a moment, become the things that are. People pass through. Those that would ordinarily make a comment about the weather or the holiday—whether or not the fireworks will be seen through the cloud cover—remain quiet when they hear Bister talking, unimpeded. Most travelers are not willing to interrupt.
Bister gets through the early part of his life and continues: “I remember asking mom how I could avoid being like that and she told me the best way to be a good man was to think like a woman. I had no way of comprehending this advice. What I wanted to know was what was in those letters. She said, ‘Prying is unbecoming. Learn how to listen; learn how to hear.’”
“I don’t have time,” a woman wearing a thin dress says. “I’ve got to protect the windows.”
“My exposure to anyone other than mom and dad was limited,” Bister says. “I’d occasionally meet other boys and girls on other boats and play with their toys, and then we’d move on. No faces or names come to mind. People were like clouds or birds, unique when you stare at them but otherwise unremarkable.
Some books held my interest, most didn’t. I never really understood why a story had to start and then stop. Life, as I saw it, drifted into and out of scope without any neat arc. When I was twelve I spied a couple having sex on the banks of the Pearl. Later that year I nearly bumped heads with a bloated old dead man on the Red. I didn’t know where these people had been or where they were going and that was fine by me. They hadn’t existed until I noticed them and if I didn’t mention them now, they wouldn’t exist at all.”
Sister nods in the direction of the boy in the brush, “Like you, in a way.”
There is an imprint in the weeds where Bister tossed the cross.
“Rivers are full of things other than water. I’d sink soda cans with rocks and skip roof shingles from one bank to the other. I’ve seen everything from diapers to false teeth; infant to elderly, people dump it all in the rivers. If the water’s deep enough, you don’t notice half of what’s below.”
“I suppose that’s true,” an older woman driving a Mitsubishi agrees, nodding and offering a crisp dollar bill before heading on.
“On the Missouri, my mother made a decision. We were going to St. Louis so she could get her teeth fixed.”
“Gapped?” the driver of a limo full of war veterans inquires.
“To me, they looked fine,” Bister says, “but to her, they were impossible. Her parents never thought they were bad when she was a child. They didn’t push for braces when mom was a girl and as a result, over the years her overbite worsened and her teeth spread out with a mind of their own. She never smiled with open lips and said she never would until her mouth was fixed. Dad claimed he wanted nothing more than to see her smile.”
“Root canal?” the limo driver, still idling, asks.
“Mom talked to a dentist who explained what it would take to rearrange her teeth. I don’t know why she was willing to sacrifice so much. What the doctors had to do was break her bottom jaw, shift it forward, and then straighten her teeth with braces for a couple of years. Mom had a three hour surgery. Dad and I stayed in the waiting room. When they said we could see her, pointed us to the recovery room, we hurried down the hall. There were two women in that room. I was thirteen and behind my dad. For a split second my dad hesitated, he couldn’t tell which woman was mom—both women had swollen faces and hospital gowns. I saw the hurt explode in my mother’s eyes when it registered that dad didn’t know who she was. I hurried over to her side and squeezed her shoulders a few times; consoled her. Later, when we were out of the hospital—she couldn’t talk for months because they wired her jaw shut—mom typed me a letter which read: Those three squeezes you gave me back in the hospital stood for, “I love you.” That meant the world to me, son.
“Just give me my change,” a driver wearing gloves says.
“I wish I still had that letter.”
“I wish you would shut up,” the gloved driver mutters and winks at his date in the passenger seat.
“Dad navigated the Fiona to a quiet cove on the Gasconade where my mom could recover. With her jaw wired shut, she could only eat through a feeding tube—a large syringe we filled with a liquid food supplement—that she squeezed through a space the dentist made by pulling her front tooth. Dad and I only ate soup and ice cream to show our support. Mom had to be careful not to get sick because the vomit wouldn’t have anyplace to go. She’d swallow it and die. She kept a special pair of scissors on a metal chain around her neck in case of an emergency. I moved around slowly and tried not to rock the boat.”
The radio is on so loudly that a teenager in a Pathfinder doesn’t know that Bister has said anything and when he sees Bister’s mouth moving he looks away.
“Since she couldn’t very well argue, mom let dad teach me about working. All dad’s ever done is work. It’s what he believes makes a man a man and he couldn’t wait to show me.”
“Don’t work too hard on the holiday,” a young woman in a Probe says as she slips Bister quarters.
“The town of Mount Sterling needed someone to repair bikes. It was early fall and biking season in Missouri. I didn’t even know how to ride a bike then, but I figured out how they worked. They’re pretty simple, really. My job was to spoke wheels and balance tires. I was paid four dollars an hour and I worked ten hours a day. My dad worked in a pickling plant up the block. My boss was an Italian man without patience. Everyday I waited for him to fire me for moving too slowly. Before he could, my mom’s jaw was unwired, her braces fitted, the biking season was over and we were on the river heading south to skirt the cold. Dad had sworn off the cold years earlier.”
A few determined stars poke through the light-glow enveloping the tollbooth. Headlights approach while taillights retreat. The boy listens from the brush. Still talking, in a moment of calm, Bister opens the booth and steps outside.
“In the swampy waters of the Catahoula I met a Cajun girl named Ulee-Lou. She was a tall girl who looked like a prying mantis; all knees and elbows. I was fifteen at the time having spent an isolated year in a logging camp in Southwest Georgia. Mom tried to keep me occupied on the boat with school stuff and board games, but I grew anxious. Dad was chomping at the bit to get me out working again and I was almost ready to go myself in order to rattle the monotony.”
Bister dashes across the road and lifts the cross up out of the grass. The boy backs away and stays on the perimeter of Bister’s sight. He returns to the booth and slides it under the shelf holding the cash register, next to the baseball bat.
“In her braces, mom looked years younger than she was,” Bister says, breathing heavily. “A family from Decatur confused her for my sister and this tickled her to death.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” a woman with a faint moustache says as she hands Bister a five. “Keep the change,” she says before pulling away in her RX-7, “for your sister’s sake.”
Bister tries to hand the money back, but cannot in time. “Inland a ways,” he says, stuffing the money in the cash register, “from the Catahoula were cattle farms and that’s where my dad went. Mom let him bring me along to help with the work and I got trampled in the first week. I was minding my business, shoveling manure in one of the barns, and wham, this crazy speckled stud named Apostrophe came galloping into the stall and knocked me flat. My head split and I was resigned back to Fiona with a mild concussion.”
A sergeant leading a convoy of military trucks stops at the booth. He waits for a break in Bister’s story before he says, “Normally, we don’t pay toll.”
“The doctor that treated me brought powders and roots and blew smoke over me. Ulee-Lou was his assistant and his daughter,” Bister says. He lifts the gate. The sergeant nods appreciatively and the truck lumbers forward leading the military parade.
“She handed him what he needed and kept a cool washcloth on my forehead,” Bister says. “Apparently, I hallucinated.”
Bister keeps the gate raised as camouflaged trucks with stern soldiers pass slowly.
“Mom said I talked gibberish and tried to take my clothes off,” Bister continues raising his voice over the rumble. “I don’t know about that. My mind doesn’t remember losing itself. Anyway, I got better. The doctor handed my care over to Ulee-Lou. Her therapy involved whispering stories that scared and aroused me all the same. I wouldn’t do them justice if I tried to tell one now. Well, I’ll try anyway:
There were two young lovers living on a plantation that ran up against the Catahoula. For whatever reason, they got into a fight. The reason for the fight was irrelevant. I just remember Ulee-Lou said the words, illicit love, and that was good enough for me.”
A woman with recent menopause blinks her eyes and waits for her change. Her Saab engine is making an odd panging sound. She just wants to get home to a cold shower.
“The woman found a voodoo doctor and put a hex on her lover. The man went to church and asked a priest for the strength to forgive his lover. Ulee-Lou didn’t say who she thought had the moral high ground in the story, not that I remember. When she whispered those stories, although I was paying close attention to her, I wasn’t always listening.”
A snake bird makes a sudden cry in the swamp.
“So, the lovers sat around waiting for things to resolve themselves. Nothing happened for three weeks. I do remember that it had been three weeks because that seemed unlikely, how can nothing happen in three whole weeks? Ulee-Lou hissed that that was not the point. All waiting comes to an end, eventually. In blew a storm. It gathered up over the plantation and sent everyone running for shelter. Everyone except for the lovers. They met on a bridge because they couldn’t stand being apart anymore. They may have met under the bridge, actually, to stay out of the rain. Anyway, at the moment that the bridge collapsed and either crushed the lovers or sent them to drown in the swirling river, they were both about to apologize. Sometimes, at night, you can hear their spirits moaning, Forgive me, love, forgive me down where the old bridge used to stand.
She told it better. She put a lot of energy into it and gave the lovers names and convinced me she had heard the moaning personally. After a few more stories like these I was better than ever.”
But of the corner of his eye, Bister sees a shoe along the side of the road. “I was grateful to finally get off the boat,” Bister says as he squints up the road. It is a woman’s shoe, a pump. He’s sure it was not there in the daylight. “Time passes so slowly when you’re young and sick and visited by possibility in the form of a slight and beautiful Cajun girl.” Bister pauses a moment and takes a sip of water. There aren’t any cars coming. He could run out and snatch the shoe and be back, if he hurried, before the next car came. He doesn’t really want the thing but it makes him uncomfortable sitting there unmatched and over-turned.
Opening the booth door, Bister says, quietly, “My dad put me back in the same barn, shoveling fresh crap from Apostrophe’s stall. He told me not to be afraid, accidents only happen once. I found this advice skeptical at best, but something was wrong with that horse, even I could tell.” Bister carefully steps out into the road. “It hung its head and looked exhausted. Whatever fear-turned-to-anger I had stored up toward Apostrophe fizzled into pity when I saw the bleak sadness in its monstrous cue-ball eyes. I whispered forgiveness to the sick thing my first day back.” When he is five steps away from the booth, approaching headlights cause Bister to scramble back and settle quickly onto his stool.
A journalist with a head cold who has been contracted to write a report about the fireworks at OceanNation, who is late, and will miss them if he doesn’t hurry, stops and looks Bister over. He saw the toll worker scamper from the road and into the booth and wonders if this operation is legitimate. “What were you doing there?” the man asks, stuffed up.
“I’ll never forget our stay on the Catahoula for a number of reasons,” Bister continues, a little out of breath. “Ulee-Lou was one. All day she assisted her father wherever there were sick people. At dusk, though, we caught up. Next to the farm where I worked, a big corporate operation raised chickens. There were millions of them; we figured nobody would miss one or two from time to time.”
The reporter, mystified, says, “What? Are you for real?”
“Ulee-Lou moved fast, so she was in charge of snatching a relatively quiet chick, and then we’d head over to the Cat’s Elbow. The Elbow was more like a cove with still water that seeped into a marsh. If you didn’t mind getting muddy, it was a fine place to fish. And that’s what we did. Sort of.
With rope I stole from a hay loft, I’d tie a neat harness around the chicken and we’d wait for night to fall. I don’t remember what we told our parents we were doing and I’m not sure how we avoided trouble. About the time the cricket and bull frog sounds got heavy we’d hear the low-quick unmistakable alligator grunts sounding off as they slithered out from the swamp to feed in the Cat’s Elbow. By sweeping flashlights over water you’d occasionally catch a pair of eyes like treasure winking back at you. That’s when I’d toss the chicken. Ulee-Lou and I held onto the rope, she in front, me anchored behind. We stood there in the mud, braced, and squinted out at the awkward white bird flopping around in the water. We never waited long. A gator would hit and roll and we would start the tug-of-war. The game was to see how close you could pull the alligator before it either bit through the rope or let go of the chicken. The big ones were the toughest to pull in and the most reluctant to let go. I remember struggling with an eight-footer for a half-hour and yanking it nearly on top of us before it severed the rope and whipped away. I can’t say why, but it never occurred to us to let go.”
“That’s something else,” the journalist mentions. A Cutlass pulls up behind him. “You ought to write that down,” he says, moving forward.
“Afterward, we’d swim in the river to clean our clothes, strip down and dry them over a small fire, then drink warm beer we’d stolen and stashed in a cardboard box near the railroad tracks. She told me she worried about her older brother, Tyree. He learned how to control his body so that he didn’t sweat, even in the noon, August heat. He used this talent to stick his head into an alligator’s mouth for pay in Gulfport, Mississippi. And, he drank anything he could swallow.”
An Isuzu speeds to a stop. Other than the driver, the cab is full of bed sheets. Bister raises the gate and goes on:
“Ulee-Lou said she’d like to fix him. But she didn’t just mean Tyree. That’s what she wanted to do with her life—help people. I could understand her saying that. There are always people to help. She said, What about you?
I told her the pirate’s life was the life for me. But since I’ve had time to think about it, I don’t think she was asking me what I wanted to do with my life.
That was early July, six years ago. I was going on seventeen. Seems like forever now. Everything’s changed.”
Bister reapplies repellant.
“With work and Ulee-Lou, I spent little time with mom. I should have appreciated her more. She and dad were drifting. They were taciturn over dinner. Maybe they had always been that way and I wasn’t paying enough attention. It’s hard to say. They’d bicker about our next destination. Mom complained that she was hot and frustrated. The braces had cut up her gums and she said chewing with her re-fitted jaw was like chewing with someone else’s mouth. And, she thought it was time to pay a visit to her parents. It was odd to see her miss someone. We had always been enough. Mom said that when her braces came off she wanted to sit down at a table on cold northern water with her parents and eat ear after ear of corn on the cob. ‘By God,’ she said, ‘that’s what I want.’”
A young woman in her Cherokee smiles weakly at the toll man. She’s had a long day. She works for the state mowing down tall weeds and grass that grow like crazy along the sides of I-95. Today she earned time and a half. Her crew is in charge of about twenty-five miles. After her crew has cut back the northbound scruff, the southbound needs mowing again. In her first week, the woman plowed over a family of ducks—the bodies were minced unceremoniously—a few feathers hung in the air. When she confided how she felt to her co-workers, they told her it came with the territory. They each had their own animal story to tell, which they did over beer in a Brunswick bar called Dirty Mugs. The woman wasn’t cheered by the stories. The next day she tried to mow cautiously. Still, she suspected something slow might linger underfoot. One day last month the woman decided, after she had mowed the stretch of stuff she was supposed to mow for the day, to climb down from the machine, hoisting a big broom, and spend the evening, her own time, walking through the tall brush and trying to rustle up and frighten whatever lived along the shoulder she was going to mow the next day. Every night she has to pick brambles and twigs from her socks.
“We all knew this wasn’t going to happen, though. Dad was too headstrong,” Bister says. “I remember, when mom brought up the idea of settling inland, he said, ‘People are mostly made up of water and they’ll get in trouble if they stray from it.’
Mom responded, ‘People are made up of much more than water.’
I asked, ‘Like what?’
‘Pixie dust,’ my dad interrupted. ‘Your mom thinks people are full of magic. She doesn’t know, like you and I know, son, smoke’s no good. It’s fire that’s important. You go chasing hot air you’ll wind up empty handed.’
‘You ought to watch how close you get to the fire,’ Mom said quietly. ‘What your father doesn’t realize, Bister, is that a hand can cup eternity if it reaches deeply enough.’
Dad smirked and shook his head; said, ‘Talk don’t put food on the table.’”
The woman in the Cherokee heads home. A PT-Cruiser pulls up to the booth.
“That year was cloudy on the Fourth of July,” Bister says, “and the fireworks that were supposed to burst over the Catahoula were cancelled.”
The teenager in the Cruiser says, “The fireworks were cancelled?”
“Before we knew there wasn’t going to be a show, mom, dad, and I sat out on the deck in the drizzle and willed the clouds to break. The rain did stop and the mosquitoes came in heavy from the swamp to descend upon us. Mom was in a defiant mood that night and made a game out of swatting the mosquitoes and smearing them on the deck. She said the last one to go below deck won a prize. I don’t remember what the prize was and it doesn’t matter because she stayed out there the longest, getting devoured and slapping the air with that unmistakable buzz in her ears.”
The teenager, confused, says, “The fireworks were cancelled?”
“I don’t know,” Bister says quickly.
“You said they were.”
Bister ignores the kid and says, “In the morning my parents woke up with a stiff neck and back. This wasn’t enough to stop dad from going to work, though. He didn’t use sickness as an excuse. Still, he wanted me to work with him out in the field to pick up his slack. Sometime over the course of the day while I tried to do whatever I could to ease the pain my dad tried to swallow down, I learned that Apostrophe had died.”
“I’m calling my parents,” the teenager says, grabbing his cell phone.
Bister takes a sip of water. He can clearly see the shoe on the side of the road illuminated in the Cruiser’s headlights. It’s blue and sheen. “The stiffness that my parents felt turned itself over to fever.”
“Hello, Mom,” the teenager says.
“Ulee-Lou and her father came aboard with their herbs and medicines. After a few day’s my dad’s temperature broke and he hurried out to the fields to work double-time,” Bister says.
“It’s the dude in the toll booth,” the teenager says into the phone. “He’s all whacked out on something.”
“My mom’s fever broke too, but she started having severe headaches and her body tightened up so that she couldn’t walk properly,” Bister says.
“No, no,” the teenager says. “He said the fireworks were cancelled. Is that true?”
“Ulee-Lou and I took care of her. When mom dozed off, I tried to fool around with Ulee-Lou. She let me, a little, up on deck. It was an awful thing to do, in retrospect, with mom wilting below.”
“All right. I’ll meet you down there,” the teenager says.
“Mom’s headaches grew worse. I remember that she told me, one night while I was reading a romance novel she wanted to hear, ‘Sometimes the neck gets tired of holding the head.’”
“I will,” the teenager replies.
“I told her to keep her chin up and if she couldn’t, I’d hold it for her.”
“I love you too,” the teenager mutters under his breath. He snaps the phone shut. “It’s still on,” he sneers and then speeds off.
“This made her laugh. And that laugh slipped into a coughing fit which caused her to choke.Water wouldn’t help. I fetched Ulee-Lou who brought her father. With effort, I got my dad out of the field, and we pulled anchor. My good-bye to the Catahoula was rushed. Ulee-Lou made me a leather necklace with an inch-long alligator tooth dangling from it and handed it to me with a lot of hurt in her eyes. That’s this necklace I’m wearing now; minus the tooth, plus the beeper.”
“Let me see it,” a curious motorcyclist says.
Bister holds the beeper out into the light.
“Nice. I once wore a mouse skull.”
“The wind picked up as I pulled the moorings aboard and we churned south down into the St. Louis Bay and over to the nearest hospital we knew in New Orleans. Somewhere somebody was burning something big enough to make a swatch of the sky gray behind us. I went below deck to check on Mom.”
A yellow El Camino with loud brakes stops at the booth. The man driving continues the conversation he started with the hitch hiker he lifted back in Beaufort.
“So my daughter refuses to pay the ticket even though I told her she’d better,” the driver says. “You don’t mess with the law, right?”
Gray Thule, the hitcher, is carsick. The driver has been all over the road. Since they stopped for fast food in Savannah, the middle-aged business man has had a sesame seed caught in his teeth and it is driving Gray crazy. Then he began the story about his daughter’s move to Daytona. It’s not the story that bothers Gray, he’s a good listener, it’s that the driver continues to interrupt himself and read every sign he spots on the side of the road. He’d say, “When she was going to CCC, her grades weren’t great, but she was passing. She just needs to study at night after work instead of hanging around her boyfriend—Mike’s Automotive, Exit 19,” or “that kid wasn’t going to bail her out, no way—Give the workers a brake,” or laugh loudly at vanity licenses plates like the one on a Lotus from Texas which read, HAR D HAR.
Now, as they idle at the booth, Gray is trying to figure out what the toll worker is saying. “Shut up,” Gray hisses at the driver, “I want to hear what this guy is saying.”
“This guy?” the driver says, hurt. “Why?”
“It might be important. He could be issuing a warning. There’s a hurricane, after all.”
“She didn’t look good,” Bister says. “Her hair was heavy with sweat and matted, her skin looked papery and white, and her eyes were dilated. I put my hand on her shoulder and told her things would turn out. Then she started convulsing. Her whole body jumped around like she was on fire inside. I called out to my dad who was trying to give Fiona speed in the fighting wind. Dad told me not to let her swallow her tongue. I hadn’t thought of her tongue at all. That seemed like something private. Reluctantly, I pried my mom’s jaw apart; her mouth looked like some kind of machine with those braces, reached down with my thumb and forefinger, and pinched hold of her tongue. After a while her body settled down and she relaxed. I kept holding. Then her eyes cleared for a moment, she looked up at me and said, ‘Do Be Da.’”
“’Dobeda?’” the driver says, paying. “That makes no sense. We’re leaving.”
“I didn’t immediately know what she meant and I was too afraid to let go of her tongue so she could repeat herself,” Bister says. “And then she died.”
“She died?” Gray says as the El Camino pulls away.
“My daughter is too much like my ex-wife, to tell you the truth,” the driver, without competition from the toll worker, continues. “She can’t seem to stay focused.”
“Do better,” Gray says.
“Don’t you tell me. I do the best job I can. Sure, I may not have gone to all of her soccer games and plays, but I made sure she ate right and did her homework. I keep telling her to go down and apply for a job at NASA. When she was a girl—Prepare to get dunked! You’re almost to OceanNation!”
“That’s it,” Gray says, “stop the car.”
“Pull over and let me out—under that billboard is fine.”
The driver, confused, flips on his blinker, slows the car, and moves off onto the shoulder of the road. “Here? In the middle of nowhere? I thought you were going to Jacksonville?”
Gray opens the car door, tucks a few strands of hair behind his ear, and grabs his beaten backpack from the bed of the El Camino. Lights on the billboard illuminate two children trying to give a dopey-looking costumed shark a high-five.
“This will do,” Gray says, hitting the car’s roof twice for emphasis.
“All right,” the driver says reluctantly, still unwilling to leave.
“Go away,” Gray says loudly. He kicks the front tire. “You’re fucking annoying.”
“You said Jacksonville,” the man repeats meekly as he leans over the passenger seat.
“Get,” Gray says, pounding his palm against the windshield.
“I ought to call the cops,” the driver threatens as he speeds off.
Gray grimaces. Prowling police make hitching hard. Even on a holiday. He rests his back against a billboard pole and lights a cigarette. There is no wind and Gray’s air-conditioned skin soaks in the humidity. Headlights from on-coming cars paint momentary stripes across his chest, and Gray welcomes the relative silence. He reconsiders his direction.
Gray left Albany eight years ago, when he was fifteen. Even as a boy he knew his world was drab. The sky sometimes stayed gray for three months and everybody under it dragged their feet along, half-dead and boring. Plus Gray’s parents were never really around much and when they were they treated him like he was still a child. They never took anything he said seriously and this made the things Gray said seem more important than they were. Gray was certain his parents were a bi-product of the place. It wasn’t really their fault. They were stuck and didn’t know any better. Out west, he learned in history class, life was different. The sun touched the mountains and there was gold in the hills and if you had a horse, everything worked out. Gray convinced a friend to come with him. The pair stole $500 dollars that had been raised for the Senior Ball and then high-tailed it into the woods, across the county line, onto a bus, out of the state. In Ohio, the friend wanted to go back home. He was hungry and intimidated by the infinite rows of corn. Gray chided his pal. He said, “Go on back. I’ll bet your mom and dad will have a warm bottle of milk waiting for you. You can tell them that you left as a boy and returned as an infant. Not me, brother, not me.”
Eventually, Gray sent his busy parents postcards letting them know he was all right:
Mom and Dad,
There’s nothing out here I can’t handle. You’d be proud of me. The other day I de-blinded a litter of kittens—their eyes just needed some warm water. Do you understand?
Gray’s parents called the police, waited for them to discover that he was gone, then hired a detective to bring the boy back. Although he found this gesture endearing, it sort of pissed him off. He was nearly snagged in Little Rock working a rodeo and was embarrassed when he had to run away in front of a few cowboy acquaintances that laughed and laughed until they spit.
On his eighteenth birthday, Gray called his parents, who didn’t pick up the phone, and contemplated leaving a message saying, “I’m free, I’m free; you all can kiss my ass.” Instead, he set the receiver down and ate a birthday breakfast on the house at Denny’s. Since then, every time he calls home, nobody answers. Gray figures his parents are giving him a dose of his own medicine. It’s something they would do—a character builder, a lesson, comeuppance.
Now, for the most part, Gray’s stayed adrift. Last week, however, something curious happened. He was working the goldfish stand where people tried to toss an over-sized Ping-Pong ball into one of many small-mouthed fish bowls at the Beaufort County Fair. One evening a large woman with crumbs on her lip complained after her ball fell into a bowl that held a dead goldfish. A group of dirty children huddled around the woman and clung to her stretch pants. A few of the kids clutched ratty-looking stuffed animals. Gray was prepared to give her a different fish once she stopped shouting. Midway through her rant, something occurred to her and she quieted. “You look familiar,” she said, scrutinizing Gray. Then she shook the children away and stretched out her large, faded tee-shirt. The woman’s exposed stomach jostled and Gray momentarily glimpsed her fortified beige bra. On the tee-shirt were silk-screened faces of a dozen smiling kids beneath block letters reading: “HELP ME GET HOME.”
“You’re him,” the woman said pointing to a mealy kid toward the bottom of her shirt.
“Nope,” Gray said, taking off his smock.
“That’s you,” the woman insisted as she tottered forward to study Gray closer. “You’re older, but chins don’t change. Is your abductor in the vicinity? Nod once if you want to say, ‘Yes.’”
“Lady,” Gray said, “that’s not me. And even if it was, I’m not a boy anymore.”
“It is you,” she said. “Once a missing child, always a missing child. You’re Gary Thule,” the woman reads the name beneath the picture.
“No, no,” Gray said. Then he bolted. It was instinct. He didn’t have anything to hide, but he didn’t like being remembered like this. The woman made big noises behind him. She contacted the police and convinced them that bad things long ago had probably warped the boy’s sense of self. Soon the County Fair was abuzz. Several alcoholics were arrested just in case. Days later Gray’s face, a sketch of what he sort of looked like now, appeared on TV with grim speculations concerning his whereabouts. The police made a half-hearted attempt to contact Gray’s parents, but they couldn’t be found.
This hullabaloo invigorates Gray. Most of the time people don’t care. They leave him alone. These few near-misses allow for Gray to better appreciate the journey. What he’s looking for is companionship. Somebody like himself but better. This someone isn’t easy to find. Crisscrossing the country hasn’t revealed much more than minor variations of the same flawed prototype.
Now, beneath the billboard, in the mug, Gray tries to relax. The cigarette helps a little. Eventually, the frustration of the El Camino will fade, Gray knows, and knowing this steadies his breathing. There is calm to be found in the rhythm of the passing cars and the murmur of the billboard light.
The sky to the south suddenly explodes. Clouds are illuminated as they swallow fireworks. Gray shoulders his backpack. He pulls his flask, recently topped-off by a generous trucker from Wilmington, from his pocket, and takes a nip. Gray’s legs are cramped and the walking feels good. He’s too far to hear the boom from the fireworks, but the lights are pretty in the sky.
Something catches Gray’s eye off to the side of the road and glinting in the quick light from a car on the Expressway. Gray investigates. There’s a stuffed bear in a small green outfit winking at Gray as light hits the marble-shaped eyes.
“This,” Gray says as he grabs the thing, “will make a fine pillow.”
Thunder sounds to the east, brittle and low.
“Where are my manners?” Gray asks the bear. “How about a tweak? It’ll put hair on your chest.” Gray hits the flask, chuckling to himself, walking gladly down the road.
Up ahead, along the median, Gray sees the silhouette of a car. Someone has pulled over, Gray figures people have stopped to watch the fireworks—this could be an easy hitch if he plays his cards right. Then he sees a figure dart out into the road with a bucket and a brush—when there’s a pause in traffic—scrub at the concrete furiously, and dart back to the safety of the side when cars come.
“Hey,” Gray calls out when he’s close enough and sees that it’s a woman, older with short hair, hunched over the bucket and preparing to run back into the road. “Do you need help?”
ulie looks at the young man standing a few yards in front of her. She dips the brush into the bucket of ammonia and water. It has taken her three hours to scrub away about fifty feet of skid marks left by the lumber truck from the accident and she still has about a hundred and fifty more feet to go. Her hands are pruned and cut.
“Where did you get that bear?” Julie asks over the sound of a wave of oncoming traffic.
Gray squeezes the bear closer to his chest. “I found it up the road. Why?”
“Is it yours?”
Gray thinks maybe hitching a ride with this woman isn’t a good idea. She has a narrow half-smile and a wicked twitch under her right eye.
Julie stands up from her crouch and runs forward, reaching. “Give that to me,” she says.
Gray yelps and jumps back. He has to twist out of the woman’s grasp on his backpack and swat her arms away. Then he hurdles a drainage ditch and high-steps into the swamp. He runs blindly and trips over swamp knees; gets covered in mud. Eventually he is far enough from the road and the woman to stop and catch his breath.
“What the hell,” he says, to the bear.
Rain starts to fall. Gray hunts for a patch of semi-dry land and then pitches his tent. He nests into his sleeping bag and falls asleep with his head on the bear listening to the rain pound on the canvas like heartbeats.