Good luck amigo, you'll need it.
Joshua Willey, Jan. 5, 2013
“God said to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, remember.” Eli’s mother, out of a combination of boredom and newfound feelings of either religious fervor or a not so subliminal need to pass on her genotype, had taken to debriefing him on his failure, after thirty-some years, to impregnate a female and rear a youth.
“The earth seems pretty fucking replenished to me, Cheyenne.” There was a point, indistinct now, at which he ceased to call her Mom. It was a constant source of contention.
“If the earth is so replenished then where is everybody, huh? Answer me that.” That was a rebuttal he couldn’t readily deny. From where he sat yelling back and forth with her, on the smooth steps leading up to the front door, he couldn’t see any human beings. Furthermore, he could identify precious little in the way of evidence of their existence. There was the dirt road leading to his home, the spattering of barbed wire fences, a cattle guard, the rest was completely indifferent to human invention. He bit his lip.
“Don’t talk to me about China. That’s got nothing to do with it.”
“You asked where everybody was,” he whispered to himself, cleaning the dirt from beneath his fingernails with an extraordinarily thick pine needle. The clouds sped by like flying saucers, completely devoid of moisture, heading east. Propelled by some unseen but irresistible force he stood, jumped into the air, clicked his boots and landed at the bottom of the steps. He walked to the truck and opened the door. Standing with his hand on the frame he paused to look back at the house. The familiarity of the sight made it somehow less real. Up above, he saw a floating circle of ravens a mile to the west, atop a butte crested with shiny black lava rock. He got in the truck, turned it over, put it into gear, and kicking up dust behind him, revved down the road, closing the open door with the force of the bump crossing over the cattle guard. He drove without braking until he hit the pavement, where he stopped and looked both ways before turning left, accelerating to 60 miles per hour, then coasting to 20 and turning left again, onto another dirt road.
Stunned, he slammed on the brakes harder than necessary and the truck skidded to a halt on the loose, arid, gravel surface. A cluster of men walked toward him, maybe ten. Recovering himself, he veered to the right side of the road and rolled slowly until they were close enough for him to notice the poor condition of their clothes and the darkness of their skin.
“Hey man, what do you call it here?” The only individual wearing a hat spoke with a Mexican accent.
“Well, there is no here, here, really.” Eli laughed slightly, recalling Gertrude Stein’s observations about Oakland, but they all just starred at him, having come to congregate around the driver-side window on which he was resting his arm. He assumed a serious expression and pointed across himself. “That there is called Fox Butte, and the paved road you’re about to hit, we call it 18, or else China Hat. This here road don’t have a name, far as I know.”
“Which way is the city?” asked a wild-eyed man with a strange discoloration on his forehead. Eli starred at him for a moment, realizing he was a white man, the only one in the group, and that his boots were not worn nearly to the extent of the rest. “Or ain’t you from around here?”
“Ah, well, depends which city, or what you’d classify as a city I guess, but seen as you’re on foot, you’d better go left, that’ll take you in. Go right and it might be a week before you see anything much more than, well, what you seeing right now.” He noticed they hadn’t any packs, and carried nothing at all in their hands.
“What makes you so sure we’re on foot?” said the man with the hat.
“Well …” Eli stumbled over the word. The others laughed.
“Just fucking with you man, of course we on foot.” He took off his hat and wiped his sleeve across his forehead.
“What’re y’all doing out here?” Eli asked.
“Looking for work. You?” said the white man.
“This is where I’m from” Eli answered, with a note of pride in his voice that surprised and then amused him.
“Here?” asked the man with the hat, pointing at the ground.
“Well, down the road, I guess.” Eli wiped his sleeve across his forehead.
“Down this road?” The man with the hat pointed where the men had come from.
“No, no.” Eli pointed past them, to the east, where he had come from.
“I see.” The man with the hat continued to look at him, while the rest of the men looked either where Eli had pointed or else at the ground, the sky, the butte. Eli stuck out his lower lip, a gesture he considered friendly, optimistic but at the same admitting of great suffering and defeat. “Tobacco” he thought suddenly. He reached quickly for his glove box and saw the men start.
“Tobacco?” he sang as he opened the latch and took out a tin of long cut. “Would any of you like a dip?” He could see immediately he had won them.
“We are many, we wouldn’t want to leave you without” said the man with the hat, as he placed it back on his head.
“No, no, it’s ok, I have another tin, at home.”
“Wah, mucho gusto, thank you, it’s been awhile.” Eli tossed him the tin as one tosses a Frisbee, it was nearly full, and he packed it, took a pinch and passed it on. Everyone took, except the man with the mark on his forehead. When it was returned to him, Eli could feel by shaking it that there was a pinch left, so he took it. Everyone was quiet for a moment, and he became suddenly conscious that his truck was still running, had been running all along, running loud, seemed to him. He felt bad, felt that maybe it was insulting to the men, who seemingly had been walking so long, that someone lucky enough to have a truck would just let it idle like that, especially with the gas prices being what they are, but then again, they might not even know about gas prices, since they weren’t driving, and anyway he had given them the long cut, and they obviously appreciated that. He spat. Some of the men began to move in the direction of a tree, beneath which they sat, spitting.
“Well, amigo” said the man with the hat.
“Good luck to you,” Eli said as he looked him in the eye, briefly, and then at the tree beneath which the group was reforming, “all of you.”
“So long,” said the white man.
“So long,” Eli echoed, and he rolled slowly down the road, carefully, so as not to stir too much dust. He looked back at them through the rearview mirror. The man with the hat had joined the others, and last Eli could see, was stretching out fully on the ground. He imagined bringing them all home, all piling into the truck bed; he imagined the shock on Cheyenne’s face as he asked her if there was any Country Time lemonade mix in the house. As the road wound upward and rounded a curve, he caught another accidental glimpse of the ravens, and this time he had a better idea of their exact location. At the top of the rise he turned left and the new road, narrowing, dropped steeply into a small bowl that was once a lake before the ice age. He had to floor it to make it up the other side, at which point the road curved sharply right, and began to round the lava-crested butte. On the south face was a large hollow, created by volcanism or maybe by mining, he thought. A bright red slide reached up to the lava cliffs which sat on top like a hat. At the bottom of the slide he could see a scattered pile of junk; the ravens were nearly directly overhead. He parked the truck and got out, leaving the door open as he walked up to the pile. He looked it over, hands in his back pockets, and spat.
There was the typical washing machine on top of an ATV trailer which looked like it might have a couple good tires on it; he’d have to see about that. There was a baby swimming pool, purple plastic with sea horses and octopi painted on the sides (though the sea creatures had somewhat human features he thought, which made them grotesque, scary, not at all suited for children, or at least for his children, if he ever had any, and he spat, again thinking of his mother). There was misshapen cardboard, bits of tire, tarp, wooden handles for rakes or hoes or something of the sort, a stack of plastic bins on plastic rollers, a pair of iron hay hooks which looked as though they had once been painted red. He thought of how, when he worked for the fire department, they had painted everything red like that, with cheap spray paint that vanished after a few years. At the center of the pile, a mattress leaned against something, obscured behind it. It was the most disgusting mattress he had ever seen. He thought it could be Satan’s mattress, if Satan had a mattress. He wondered if Satan slept, and for that matter if God slept, and then he remembered how Cheyenne had told him he was devilish when he slept too late into the day and that likely Satan slept a lot but God hardly at all. Shotgun cartridges were scattered everywhere, red and green, matching the red of the cinders against the green of the trees, like Christmas. He spat and walked back to the truck.
Reaching behind the seat, he took out the Marlin M444 5-shot rifle and the little Navajo leather pouch full of bullets. He closed the door and put the gun and ammunition on the hood; then he waded through the junk to the ATV trailer and began kicking the tires. They were still good, sure enough. He walked back to the truck and jumped up into the bed, opened the toolbox and removed a wrench. The first tire came off easy, but there was weight resting on the second, so he had to block it up before he could get it off. The other two tires were shot, literally. He rolled his loot to the truck and tossed it into the bed, spitting out his dry dip as he returned to the gun and loaded it. First he shot the washing machine, and as the boom echoed off the slide and the lava cliffs, he heard the ravens yelling and scattering out of site, maybe taking to the trees, covered. The second shot he sent into the mattress, which muffled the sound somewhat, though a thin trail of dust or smoke slipped from one of the tears. He shot it again, and this time it returned the sound of a ricochet, and again a trail of what he was now sure was smoke escaped from the top. He shot the washing machine a few more times and reloaded.
For weeks he had felt a scream building inside him, a balloon of undirected and objectless aggression that yearned to manifest itself in the fresh air. He aimed at the mattress and screamed at the top of his lungs, emptying the rifle. The scream, shots, and ricochets echoed violently off the butte, off the trees, even off the truck, and then suddenly the mattress burst into flame. Eli blinked in disbelief, and then his heart raced.
He looked around and rushed the weapon back to its place behind the seat; meanwhile the flame grew as the entire mattress caught fire. He thought he could race home and get a fire extinguisher, then thought about the dirt, and grabbing what looked like the rusted lid of a metal barrel, began to furiously shovel dirt into the blaze. As soon as he saw the flames begin to catch surrounding junk on fire, he decided he had better build a line around it, isolate it so it would burn itself out. Using the same implement, he raked the junk away from the mattress as best he could, moving counterclockwise around it. He was relieved to see that the object the mattress leaned against was a just a boulder, not flammable to a fire of this heat. He meant to run around to continue his line on the other side, but stopped dead in his tracks as he saw, laid flat on the cinders behind the rock, the body of a man, eyes open, clothes torn, without shoes, recently deceased. The ravens flashed in his mind, then the men he had met on the road. He felt ill, the flavor of the chewing tobacco turning against him in his stomach. He blinked hard and, feeling the heat of the fire, jumped over the corpse to finish blocking the spread of the blaze.