Issue 102- Prose

A mixture of the short and the slightly longer this time, touching on everything from nearly burning your house down, to the problems of counting sheep. As wonderful as all these pieces are, I must admit to a certain fondness for Mark Howard Jones’ Sleep Sheep, which is delightfully whimsical. Incidentally, anyone looking for poetry should note that it is directly below this section, Dorla having gotten her section together rather more efficiently than I did. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.

 

 Playing with fire

Josh Olsen

 I admit, I overfilled the fire pit, and after the fire was lit the flames engulfed the metal structure that failed to contain it, burning off the rust that had begun to form after the last rain. The kids screamed in terror of the roaring blaze, and I laughed at their fear and the chaos that warmed my mosquito-bitten ankles and face, and my heart raced with both the excitement of the fire as well as a tinge of panic that, perhaps, it was a bit out of control, and I considered tossing my drink into it but worried that the vodka to grapefruit juice ratio was too potent to not further fuel the inferno on my patio, but it quickly died down. The dry pine branches and needles used as kindling rapidly reduced to embers and a fine white ash, the kids dried their tears, my heart rate decreased, and I went inside to top off my cocktail. I was happy that KT wasn’t there to witness what had clearly been a risk to our house and home. Surely, she had kept the receipt for the fire pit, a gift for my birthday – thirty years-old, and still playing with fire.

 

 

Sleep Sheep

Mark Howard Jones

Sometimes he’d stand on the five-bar gate, his toes balancing on one of the cross bars as the hinges sagged under his weight, and the field would be empty. Then the night would be long and tiredness would weigh him down all the next day.

Maurice had relied on counting fluffy sheep jumping over gates ever since he was a child. Now the woolly jumpers seemed to have deserted him and sleep was

Having left for dream pastures new, he couldn’t think how to entice the flock back. Someone somewhere was being shepherded safely off to sleep each night by his sheep.

The solution came unexpectedly one evening as he struggled to focus his tired eyes on his favourite architectural make-over programme, “Barnes On Barns”. There in the background, behind the rustic ruin that someone was trying to restore, was a huge field filled with white dots. Innumerable aids to sleep.

He scribbled down the oddly foreign sounding name of the place and looked it up in an atlas. As he’d suspected, it was in a place he knew little about; to him, Wales

On the Saturday morning, he kissed goodbye to his wife, Doris, and their two cloned sons, Horace and Boris, and drove the 150 miles to the border. As he crossed into Wales

After half an hour’s drive he was at the place mentioned in the TV programme. Yet there was nothing there. He checked the map; it told him that there should be a village, or something, there.

After idling along for a while he finally came to a small collection of houses and a pub, Y Mochyn Mawr.

Inside, he found that he was the only customer apart from a man standing further along the bar, leaning over his pint. He glanced at the man’s muddy wellies and old tweed jacket. Perfect! “Do you farm around here then?” asked Maurice.

The man noted Maurice’s unusual accent and answered with a cautious affirmative. Maurice followed up his preliminary question with a querulous “Oh, really. What do you farm?”

The man squinted at Maurice as if he was an idiot and replied “Sheep, of course.” At the widening of Maurice’s eyes, the man braced himself for a smutty racist joke about Welsh farmers and their overwhelming ‘affection’ for their woolly charges. But two pints later, after Maurice had explained his problem, the man asked: “And you just want to count them? That’s all? Nothing else?”

Maurice nodded and the two shook hands.

Ten minutes later Maurice was following the farmer’s Land Rover up a stony, uneven road. Suddenly, as they drove over a rise, Maurice saw the building that had featured in the TV programme. And behind it …

There it lay before him; an enormous green cup filled to the brim with white woolly froth. The wind whispered of somnolence and sweet sleep, carrying on it the scent of chewed grass and animal warmth.

After parking in the farmyard, Maurice walked briskly back to the field. He leaned on the gate and gazed at the canvas of green and white before him. This place was like paradise, he thought.

The late summer sun was still a few hours from setting when he lazily began to count how many keepers of the secrets of sleep were in that field. Soon his head grew heavy and his sight grew dim; he had to stop for the night.

Within a few days, his old life of familial ties and insomnia forgotten, Maurice had bought a tent and set it up in a field overlooking the sheep’s pasture. The farmer smiled at him and shook his head every time he drove past.

Now every night the gate of dreams was guarded by hundreds of ovine oneiric guardians, all pressing their black noses through the bars, forming an impenetrable woolly barrier while their breaths gradually misted up the lens of sleep.

Sometimes they would leave room enough for the fitter ones to take a run up and jump the gate. But, even if not, it didn’t matter because there were far too many of them for him to count; sleep inevitably overtook him before he was even part way through.

 

 

EIGHT

By Walter Conley

 

It’s raining. I’m standing outside, just because I feel like it. There are quite a few of us out here–not as a group, but as individuals and pairs–along the diner’s front window. A strong, steady wind blows rain across the sidewalk.

 Spig and Little Mike are beside me, in the corner. It’s rare to find both out of rehab at once.

 

Little says, “Man, I don’t know about you, man.”

“What?” Spig says.

“What’s your address?”

“Why?”

“I know what it is, man.”

“So what?” Spig says.

“So, I saw at your house, Albert Spignoli, you had a upside-down “B” instead of a eight.” Little shrugs and looks at him. “You see what I’m saying?”

 

 Walter Conley has written for comics, children’s entertainment and film. His work has appeared at such online venues as A Twist of Noir, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Opi8 and Blue Murder Magazine. http://baag2009.blogspot.com

 

 

Choices

Stephanie Decker

 

With nothing else to do to pass the usual two-hour wait, Lloyd amused himself by observing the people standing in the long line with him. He noted new faces, returning faces—probably from rehab or jail, and faces that had become fixtures, as much a part of the homeless milieu as the faded and chipped shelter building itself. A cloud of rank odors hung like a banner over the trash-littered block: urine, tobacco and cheap booze, drug-filled toxic bodies sweating poison into the sticky air. Lloyd smiled to himself, oddly comforted by the familiar sight of William going through his nightly routine of finding someone who might be in a tolerant mood for listening to the thoughts boiling over inside his head, someone whose patience he hadn’t too recently exhausted.

 William paced up and down the sidewalk, casting furtive glances at the line of assorted men and women clumped together like bruised and rotting fruits. He took a second look at an auburn-haired woman carrying a rolled-up comforter and small flowered weekender. Her face was pleasant enough, but her eyes kept darting about like a gazelle’s drinking at the edge of crocodile-infested water. William knew the look of a first-timer. He angled toward the curb to light a cigarette. Pocketing the lighter, he turned to face her, casually, as if she just happened to fall into his field of vision. “Haven’t been here before, have you?”

 The gazelle sensed the waters stirring. “No.” She sounded somewhere between not friendly but not rude.

 For William, someone speaking to him was someone not slamming a door in his face. The welcome mat was out. He started with his stock introductory speech, about how he’d come to the West Coast from upstate New York in 1974, after his father died, who’d come here from Norway and William went to Norway once to visit his Dad’s family, around 1968 he thought, the place colder than ice water all the time, but his sister lived in California, he didn’t like California, didn’t like his sister much either… William took a breath and watched her soft gray eyes, monitoring for the glaze-over that cued him to shift the focus of the conversation to the listener before she bolted. “You got any phobias?”

 Susan had never been asked this question before. “No, not really. Except for my abusive husband, I’ve gotten pretty phobic about him.

 William continued his monologue. “After visiting my sister in California, I almost got cacophobia—fear of ugliness. Some ugly people there. Not in LA though, because of all the plastic surgeons. Those LA’ers got barophobia—fear of gravity. My name’s William.” He shifted his cigarette to his left hand and thrust a large, hairy paw, digits splayed, in her direction.

 “Hello,” she said, reluctantly clasping his finger tips.

“Are you sure you don’t have any phobias, because most people have at least two. Yeah, two at least.” William cocked his head slightly to one side, looking at her through the tops of his eyes, as if he suspected she might be holding out on him.

 “No, no phobias,” she said.

 “Wait until you get inside. Plenty of phobias in there.”

 She exhaled a long sigh, as if pressed by the weight of all the phobias William was warming up to recite. The heavy muggy air lifted a little with the shifting and stirring as people picked up their bags and bundles and moved forward. At 9:00 p.m. the shelter doors had finally opened.

 “Get on in here now I said, hurry up about it.” Calvin, keeper-of-the-door, motioned them in with a jerk of his arm.

 Lloyd gritted his teeth. Why does he have to talk to us like we’re dogs who’ve peed on the carpet?

 Calvin snarled at a stringy-haired girl dragging two garbage bags full of smelly clothes. “Get the lead out yo butt, woman. You got your TB card tonight? Cause if you don’t, you ain’t stayin’ here.” She ignored him and continued to drag the bags into the check-in room.

 Lloyd’s teeth ached. He presented his TB card to the check-in woman, who returned it to him with a smile as weak and blue as skim milk. He slung his duffel bag over his shoulder and started the long climb up the creaky, warped stairs to the men’s shelter dorm. Behind him he heard William, talking to no one in particular.

 “That Calvin, he’s got phronemophobia all right. Yeah, Calvin’s got fear of thinking. And this cook here, now she’s got lachanophobia—fear of vegetables. Never any vegetables on my plate. My sister, she lives in California…”

 Lloyd tuned William out as his own thoughts turned inward. He’d been a man of reasonable height until the pull of gravity and the burden of temptation weakened and shortened his spine. He’d felt himself shrink as each toll for the drinking came due. The loss of his marriage, his job, his house, his son—each had hammered him a little closer to the ground. This shrinking was accompanied by other alterations in his appearance. His sandy hair turned to ash. The alcohol blighted his nose and nourished his arthritis. Shaving had become too much of a responsibility, so a mask of stiff sandy fur covered the lower half of his face. Even his eyes seemed changed, their once gripping artic blue now clouded and watery. In this alien form of himself, quiet and anonymous, he had dragged himself up these steps to collapse into a hard metal bunk every night for almost a year.

 The shelter’s small dining hall shrank as the men and women crowded into it the next morning for their breakfast of stale donated pastries and powdered milk. The room smelled of bleached floors and pissy clothes. Peeling paint scarred colorless walls. A paper plate dropped to the floor. The stringy-haired girl glanced down at it, no more thought to pick the plate up than if it were a dry autumn leaf blowing by. She returned to sipping the bitter mission coffee, eyes glassy and dull like newly caught fish laid on ice, with only an occasional quiver revealing a sign of life. She was awakened from her dreamless daydream by the tap, tapping of the man sitting across the table from her.

 He was busy making cigarettes. His hands, gnarled roots sprouting from the bony trunks of his arms, seemed incapable of the dexterity to insert the fine shreds of tobacco into the small paper cylinder cradled in a hand rolling machine, yet he did this quickly, efficiently. The girl pasted a few strings of hair behind her ear. She watched as he dropped the shreds in then tap, tap, tap—the loose tobacco settling into a rounded even line inside the paper trough as the man tapped the roller against the table. A few particles spilled out onto the table, which he collected by pressing his fingertip into the moist brown bits. Nothing went to waste.

 “Hidee ho, Lloyd.” The morning shift volunteer bared all his teeth in his determination to smile cheer into the chronically sad.

 Lloyd looked up at the sound of his name. “Dean,” he acknowledged him with a nod.

 Dean slapped Lloyd’s back as he hunched over the table, concentrating on his morning cigarette-making ritual. “Looks like you’re planning to do a serious amount of smoking today, Lloyd. Trying to get into the Guinness Book or something?”

 “Nah.” Lloyd smiled. “Little Benny’s birthday’s tomorrow, so thought I’d see if I could sell a few sticks here, quarter apiece. Got to have a present for my Benny.”

 “Any idea what you’d like to get him?”

 Lloyd rubbed his forehead and then massaged a nick in the old table. “Well, I’d give him a puppy if I had my way. But Laurel—his mother, would have a fit and a half. She’s gotten funny about things—about me—since his dad was killed in the accident. Lloyd’s eyes dropped away from Dean’s, a slight tremor rippled across his hands before he busied them once again assembling cigarettes. To distract Dean’s attention from this, he forced out a little laugh. “She says she’s praying for me.” He grinned up at Dean to indicate he didn’t take this too seriously.

 A draft from the window blew a miniature tumbleweed of hair-tangle and debris across the room. Dean grabbed a napkin and went after it, tossing encouragement over his shoulder, “You’ll think of something just right.”

***

 Benny slurped his milk as loudly as he could. This caused his mother to stop rinsing the dishes and look over her shoulder at him, Stop that, written on her face. “Can Tessy move with us? And Rumple and Alistair?”

 “No, Tessy has to stay here with her parents, and her dogs, too. But we’ll have new neighbors in Ohio. And remember Grammy and Granddad Miller, they sent you that big blue truck and the books for Christmas?” Benny nodded. “You’ll get to see lots more of them now.”

 “But I want to stay here with Grandpa.” His face clouded up.

 “Sweetie, you know we can’t stay. But we can come back and visit Grandpa Lloyd. “We can…”

 Benny scooted off the chair and ran to the big recliner in the living room, sticking his thumb in his mouth and plucking at his shoe lace with his free hand. Laurel dried her hands on the towel and followed him. She worried about this regression—this babyish thumb sucking and pouting since his father died. She worried his behavior would affect his acceptance in the new school and he would never adjust to their start-over lives. But she didn’t want to have to explain, didn’t want to have to fight tears and endure looks of pity while she assured the new kindergarten teacher of her son’s keen intelligence and normally age-appropriate behavior. Most of all, she wanted him to be able to grieve in his own way for as long as he needed to.

 “Remember, tomorrow is your birthday. I’ll take you to see Grandpa and you can have a nice long visit with him before we leave, OK?” Benny smiled around the thumb still in his mouth. “Now let’s take you next door so you can play with Tessy while I go shopping.”

 Laurel set her packages under the diner’s checkered-top table, then brushed crumbs from the booth before she sat down. After ordering a child’s lunch—a grilled cheese sandwich and hot chocolate—she stared out the window at the busy intersection, watching the cars glide by, stop, move on. A metaphor for my life, she thought. She hoped Benny and Lloyd would have a special day tomorrow, gathering memories. The server brought her cheese toasty—she remembered that’s what she’d called them as a child. As she bit into the warm, crunchy square oozing melted cheese, she mused on all the bistros and trendy new eateries that had sprouted up downtown in the last 10 years. None of them had improved on the classic grilled cheese. Laurel sighed and took a cautious sip of the hot chocolate, careful not to burn her tongue. Her free hand, without conscious instruction, reached for the billfold in her pocket and brought it to the tabletop. Her slender fingers flipped it open and she stared at the small photo inside its plastic sheath. The laughing couple, he looking at her, she looking up at the sky, her laughter covered by brown waves of hair whipped across her mouth by the ocean breeze. Laurel shivered, remembering the chill in the air that autumn day.

 As Laurel watched out the window, a bent old man came along pushing a heavily-laden grocery cart up the sidewalk at an oddly brisk pace. He skillfully guided it to the corner, then swung the cart sideways so it braced against the sign post. After pushing up the sleeves of his tattered rain coat he carefully lifted a couple of items—a can and a plastic bag—off the top and pulled out a large cardboard sign. Beaming, pleased with his endeavor or with anticipation of a successful day, he rummaged among the things on the lower shelf of the cart. At last he brought forth a little fold-up stool. Laurel took another bite of sandwich, fascinated. The man squatted down onto the stool, set the can in front of him, the plastic bag to his left. He had difficulty getting the cardboard sign to angle just right against the can and spent some time adjusting and readjusting until it stood to his satisfaction and the neatly lettered ‘NEED MONEY’ succinctly conveyed his request to motorists. He then sat whittling on a small object, only looking up to dip into the bag for an apple or banana or to acknowledge money thrown toward him. Laurel ordered a piece of coconut cream pie, noticing most drivers rode by without a second glance at the man, as if he were merely an unsightly overgrown shrub. But once in a while, an arm would fly out of a passing window and toss coins or bills—mostly coins, at his can. The man would grin and nod. Laurel observed that if the money touched the can, the old man lifted one hand with a ‘thumbs up’ to the car. If any money actually landed inside the can, the car was awarded two ‘thumbs up’.

 Laurel paid for lunch and headed for her car. The man turned and gave her a sly smile. Had he known she was watching him? Laurel wondered if she should speak to him. No. Oh, why not. She saw that he wasn’t as old as he’d appeared from a distance, was maybe in his fifties. “Hello.”

 “Hi. How’s it going?” The man spoke rapidly.

 She thought she detected a New York or New Jersey accent, something East Coast. “I’ve been watching you. You’re making a game of it, aren’t you?”

 “Life’s a game. You might as well enjoy it. Some don’t though. Some have phobias. You got any phobias?” He talked so fast, she imagined he’d once been an auctioneer.

 “No, I don’t think so. I mean, I’m not crazy about spiders, but not to the point of being phobic.”

 He gave his nose a bored scratch. “Arachnophobia, that’s common. I had a buddy when I was a kid who had geniophobia—fear of chins. If he saw someone with a big chin, he wouldn’t talk to ’em. Now I have my own phobias,” he paused before his punch line, “like ergophobia—fear of work.” He wheezed and snorted laughter at his joke, his eyes squinting up at Laurel to see if she got it. “No chrometophobia though. No, no fear of money.”

 Laurel had to laugh. Silly man. She tossed a couple of dollar bills into his can. Two hairy thumbs-up sent her on her way.

 Heat had burned off all the color in the sky, leaving it a sullen gray. Laurel turned up the air conditioning in her car and tried to think what she should say to Lloyd. What was she supposed to say when he asked her why she was taking his grandson thousands of miles away? He knew, but he would ask anyway. He would make her say it. He would force her to shout the truth at him so he could shout back all his hatred of himself, of her, of life. But one thing she knew he would never shout—would never even whisper: I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was drunk. I’m sorry I drove into a telephone pole and killed your husband, killed Benny’s father, killed my son. No, Lloyd would say many things, but never the one thing that could heal them. She gripped the steering wheel harder, unconsciously stiffening herself to deflect the words that would be hurled at her like sharp, heavy stones.

 Lloyd paced around the park bench, too edgy to sit while he waited for Laurel. In the message she’d left for him at the shelter, she’d said she would be bringing Benny by for one last visit tomorrow. So they could say goodbye, she’d said. Why did she want to see him today? What was the point? He looked past the trees to see her blue Toyota pull up, scraping the curb as she came to a stop. She never could park worth a durn. He spit into the grass and watched her walk slowly toward him, heels clacking against the sidewalk. He saw Benny’s same brown curly hair framing her pale, freckled face.

 “Hello, Lloyd.”

 He nodded.

 “I thought…I wanted to tell you, to explain why…” Laurel stopped, rigid and semi-nauseous with apprehension.

 For a long time Lloyd stood there looking at his scuffed shoes before he spoke. “I know.” He raised his head and leveled his gaze at her, “I know why, Laurel.” He turned and walked away, his back a little straighter than usual.

 Laurel watched him for a minute, not sure what to do. “I’ll bring Benny here tomorrow. About 3:00. OK?”

 Without turning around, Lloyd raised an arm in the air and gave a little wave of acknowledgment.

***

 “Grandpa, what kind of dog is that?”

 Lloyd followed the boy’s gaze to see the large, mostly black dog padding purposefully down the sidewalk. “Looks like a shlab,” he said.

 

“What kind’s a shlab?” Benny tightened his grip around three thick, misshapen fingers of his grandfather’s hand.

 “The kind with a shepherd and a lab for a mom and pop.”

 “What kind is Rumple?”

 Lloyd scratched his chin whiskers, then gave a dig through his ear fur. “Well, let’s see. Tessy’s little mutt is most likely a beagley type.”

 “Erf, erf. Erf, erf, erf.”

 Not a bad rendering, thought Lloyd. The boy had a gift for imitating sounds. “That’s Tessy’s little dog all right, Benny. Are you sure that was you—you’re not hiding Rumple in your pocket?”

 Benny giggled as he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Erf, erf,” he barked up at Lloyd, causing Lloyd to giggle himself. “Who’s this, Grandpa? Growf, growf, growwf.”

 Lloyd was astonished to recognize the unmistakable voice of Alistair, Tessy’s English bulldog. Benny’s imitations delighted him. Whether dogs or lawnmowers or his mother’s peculiar sneeze, the boy entertained him with his mimicking.

 “You do it, Grandpa. You be Rumple and I’ll be Alistair.”

 They barked their conversation until they couldn’t anymore from laughing so hard. Lloyd hugged him close as they plopped onto the park bench.

 The boy reached into his pocket and pulled out the small, roughly hand-carved dog Lloyd had given him. Cupped in his hands, he petted it with his thumb. “What should I name him, Grandpa?”

 “Oh, you’ll think of something, Benny, something just right. I’ll call you in a month or so. You can tell me then, OK? Give me a hug now Benny boy, I see your mother marching up the walkway here.”

***

“Shh!” Lloyd admonished himself as his whisky bottle clanged against the dumpster. He remembered little Benny’s mimicking of the mutt Rumple. Sniffing, he barked out a try at it. “Ruff, ruff.” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Rruff, roff.” He didn’t notice the two young men sauntering his direction down the alley. “Almosss got it right, lemme try again. Ruffa, ru…”

 “Hey, old man! Can’t you read? Sign says, ‘No Barking,’” one of them said, jerking a thumb toward the building behind them. Punching each other and hooting with laughter, they moved on down the alley.

 Lloyd squinted in the direction the punk had gestured. He saw that the ‘P’ in the ‘No Parking’ sign on old Powell’s Mercantile building had been spray-painted into a ‘B’. He heaved himself up, dropping the empty whiskey bottle as he stumbled out the alley. He passed the open door of the street-front church, behind which the down-and-outers shuffled into line for a night’s bed at the homeless shelter. The tambourines were beating a jangly rhythm to a motley chorus’ nightly off-key singing of “Find grace, grace, grace in the name of Jes…sus. Find peace, peace, peace in the name of Jes..suuus…” Lloyd made his way to the end of the shelter line.

 

 

Palm Dusk

 Paul Corman Roberts

 Don’t be fooled by the thick humidity. The day grows darker than you imagine in a twilight vaguely illuminated by the burning tops of the palm trees; forty-four fronds blazing away, swaying in the gentle East Bay winds.

 All beneath the particulate marine layer with an eye for a local mortgage; weather drawn by the density of bodies. Elements are as the blank slate of wills of you and I with our pretensions to an immortal phantasmagoria.

 For a time there had been a growing sun, as if Orion had thrown out his arms to embrace the Earth as his lover.

 

 

Hitchin’ Out

J. B. Hogan

 

Early February, Twenty Above:

Twenty above, standing by the Higginsville exit, two onion and cheese sandwiches apiece and five dollars between them. The girlfriend’s VW disappearing down Highway 13 like the last link to safety and comfort, which it was.

 It was cold on the highway but they only had to wait a little over an hour for the first ride. It was a perfume salesman. His car was soft and warm inside and had a strong feminine odor. He talked about his job: how he traveled, some of the fascinating people he met, how young people were really okay by him.

 But he only went to Kansas City and dropped them off on I-70 just before the road turned north to loop around town and head on to St. Joseph. They reluctantly went back into the cold, the buildings of downtown looming up in the background, gray, impersonal, unconcerned. The perfume salesman gave each of them a bottle of cheap cologne and they stowed them in their bags wishing it had been something warm to eat or drink. It was still morning.

“Hey, white boys,” the girl called. “Hey, you need a ride?”

 They hustled down the embankment to the waiting car: a long, white Pontiac. There were three girls, two skinny and one fat, and one guy – a totally nodded out doper. They were going to Denver.

 At any speed the car weaved and floated from side to side, scaring the hell out of them. As soon as they crossed the state line into Kansas one of the tall skinny girls took the wheel, put the Pontiac at about 120 mph and left it there.

 The car sailed, literally sailed, down the interstate and the girls started talking about shooting smack and began harassing the stoned out dude. They were kind of bitchy girls and one time they put a match into the guy’s face and burned some of his beard. It smelled awful but didn’t seem to bother him. He was definitely gone.

 Somewhere past Lawrence they stopped for gas and the girl driving decided it would be a good idea to just pull right away without paying. Take off without removing the gas hose from the tank. At the last minute she changed her mind and paid the bill. At that point, the hitchhikers, relieved, were convinced that weaving back and forth down the interstate at 100 plus wasn’t so bad after all. At least there weren’t cops after them, too. It was a relative sort of thing.

 An hour or so later, the skinny girl driver suddenly pulled over onto the shoulder of the road and announced that they were turning back for Kansas City. The two hitchhikers were presently in the absolute middle of nowhere.

 “This is it,” the girl said.

 “We gotta go back,” the other skinny girl said.

 “Yeah, we have to,” the dude said.

 “Shut up,” the fat girl told him. She hit him on the arm. He stared off into space.

 The hitchhikers climbed out. It was the warmest part of the day. It still felt cold as hell to them.

 “They won’t be goin’ back to Kansas City,” one of them said, watching the Pontiac fade into the horizon.

 “No,” the other one said.

 “They dumped us ‘cause we didn’t have dope.”

 “Think so?”

 “Yeah, the main driver girl was mad about that. I heard her say it at the station back there.”

 “We’re probably better off.”

 “I suppose. But this sure as hell ain’t nowhere.”

 “No.”

 “This is Kansas.”

 “Exactly.”

 “Let’s eat one of the sandwiches.”

 “Good idea.”

 

A Nice Farm Girl:

 She was a nice farm girl and she took them all the way to Hays. By then it was getting late and the temperature was dropping faster than their spirits.

 “You boys know how to read?” the highway patrolmen gruffly asked. He was about ready to kick their cans into storage for a few days, but they didn’t give him any grief and they were clean – their Federal and Kansas records that is.

 “You can’t stand up here on the highway,” he said. “You’ll have to wait off the highway by the entrance ramp. Before it. You can’t be a traffic hazard. Clear?”

 Clear. They walked down to the bottom of the ramp and waited. It was beginning to get real cold. The sun was almost gone.

 Another hitchhiker talked to them awhile. He said somebody had taken a shot at him somewhere this side of St. Louis. Probably didn’t like people bummin’ rides. Sometimes, he said, he went to airports and hitched rides on private planes. They weren’t exactly sure about that one.

 Then the sun went down. They started pacing. Back and forth. Back and forth. It was very dark. It was very cold.

 

This Girl Was Very Young:

 

This girl was very young and very pretty and drove a yellow Plymouth. At first they were so warm they both fell asleep. Later they shared the driving but finally had to stop and let everyone sleep for awhile.

 They reached the outskirts of Denver while it was still dark but beginning to lighten up. On the way to Boulder, the girl told them she was sixteen, from San Diego, and that she had stolen the Plymouth from her dad and just taken off. They looked at each other and shook their heads.

 When they got to Boulder it was gray; light, but no sun yet. The mountains drove up into the sky beyond the town and hung there: dominant, oppressive.

 “I’m going on to California maybe later today or tomorrow,” the girl said. “Meet me up at the CU union or be around there and I’ll look for you. I got people here. I want to visit them.”

 “Us too,” one of them told her. “Maybe we’ll see you later.”

 “You serious,” the other one said when the girl was gone, “go on to California? I thought this was where we were going.”

 “You’re right.”

 “Forget California.”

 “Yeah, forget it. There’s millions of people out here. We can find a place to crash.”

 “Alright, then, we made it.”

 “Let’s get somethin’ to eat.”

 “I’m for that.”

 “Later we look for something to do.”

 “And a place to crash.”

 “Right on.”

 They walked into a small, early-hours cafe and ordered eggs, potatoes, toast, and hot chocolate. Outside they could feel the presence of the mountains: cold, powerful, unconcerned. They’d gone as far as they were going. They didn’t think about the pretty, under-aged girl in her daddy’s stolen car, or California. They’d give Colorado a run for its money. That’s what they had intended to do anyway.

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