Friday, November 1, 2013

The Road to Zuni (Fiction)

I first saw him thumbing a ride in front of the trading post south of Gallup. Stricken with a lapse of mind or a rebellious impulse, maybe both, I decided to pick him up.

At the time I thought it was the right thing to do. I had been playing it too safe and wanted to remember what it felt like to do something for the first time, to remember what it felt like to be young.

Back then, I thought I had some talent, raw talent, something to follow. I see now the delusions, but over the years, unfinished business stalked me like a shadow. I took another path, the one of love -- not crazy love, but love that pulls you to Earth, clips your wings, allows a saddle of duty to cinch down tight your dreams.

That was until I met her anyway. Her voice, her eyes, her skin. All of her acted on me like a drug. I thought I would die before feeling those rushes again.

All this memory rushes through me as I disengaged the cruise control, activated the directional, and pulled over. There is a voice still that says I probably should have kept driving. I have a faint memory of that doubt, a whisper that I shouldn't do this, followed by a reflex to lock the door and just pull back out into traffic.

I must have wanted to open things up again, or wanted something to wake me up, maybe to court the risk one feels playing Russian Roulette.

Reticence undone, acceptance plugged in, I unlocked the door so he could climb into the car. 

Yes I stopped. You get what you get from your actions. It's a law. I see that now. 

No regrets about that. Just a fact.

He wasn't Zuni or Navajo, not even native, but was roughed red enough by the wind, sun, and cold to pass for tribal. No, he was something else, gypsy maybe, or Mexican.

He threw his pack onto the back seat and climbed in.

"Hey." A nod. "Thanks for the lift." Fluent English. Maybe Spanish descent. Old family.

He sat back, and the seat belt stretched over him as he closed the door. I checked the mirror and then pulled onto the highway. He was quiet as we got up to speed.

I hoped he would not ask what I was doing out here. Likely he had noticed my out-of-state plates and figured I was here on some kind of business. Nobody would come up here this time of year for a vacation.

Plus it would be embarrassing to tell him I just wanted to take the back way home, to avoid grading the stack of papers in the trunk for another couple of hours. I'd make the work up on Monday I told myself, almost believing it. The slower highway would add the time to think, to mull over things I didn't want to face otherwise.

The Zuni mountains, with their Ponderosa pine-covered ridges, streamed past us outside the window.

"Pretty cold," he said.

Yeah, that's for sure, I thought. Cold enough to freeze a man to death if he stands next to a highway too long. 

"I've done time," he added like an afterthought. "Thought I'd just put that out in front, so it doesn't come as a surprise if you find out later." He looked straight ahead as he said it.

"Was it hard?"

"Not so bad after the first few months. Just settled in."

I nodded just to show I heard him, not that I understood what that was like.

"Worst part was when she stopped coming for visits. Stopped writing too."

"I work in a prison, part time. And teach some classes at the U." I said, surprised to hear myself say it.

He looked at me. My turn.

"GED, math, writing, basic stuff. Freshman classes at college."

"You know what it's like then," he said. "At least what it looks like, not what's it's like to have to stay night and day."

"Yeah. I don't pretend to know what that's like. I just do my job."

"Must be nice when you get to leave, after a day in and all."

"I gotta say, I'm glad to walk out of there every time."

"You ever take stuff in, you know, the stuff you're not supposed to?"

Man, if only he knew, I thought, sucking in a breath. He noticed that too.

"Yeah, you do."

"Once in a while. Just little stuff like pencil leads, drawing charcoal, stuff for school work."

"It's hard not to, isn't it? Just push a little here and there to see what you can get away with. It's human nature. How about a message? You ever carry a message?"

Oh shit. Now we were getting into it. I wondered about changing the subject, changing course, going back to the Interstate, the clean, safe, well-lit gas mega-stations.

"Only once. As a favor for a friend."

"What kind of friend?"

"Someone I met in the sally port one time."

"Was she sweet?"

Oh man, this was getting a little too close to the bone. But what was the harm?

"Yes. In fact she was beautiful. You could say I was in love with her."

"I knew it. It always goes that way. She wasn't in love with you was she?"

"It got kind of  complicated, I guess. I mean, she wanted to send stuff in for her boyfriend that she couldn't get through the visitor searches. And, well, I  knew her boyfriend. He was in a GED class. It was pretty easy to get him stuff....You could say she appreciated that and wanted to thank me."

"I bet she looked good going in for those visits. Not as good as she wanted to, but as good as she could, given all the dress code B.S. and all those sniffing dogs."

It was beyond good, I thought. She looked like rough-sawn royalty, radiated a coquettish fuckability. The air around her was thick with a musk that no one could ignore. Yes, she looked good, made you feel good. Alive.

"Yeah, but she was young, too young for me."

"That's between you and her, I say."

"You married?"

"Not any more."

"You are fruit ripe for the pickin'" he said, without malice.

"I see that now."

"You still in this thing?"

"It's going on, but is quieter now than it was. Her boyfriend is getting out soon. I don't want things to get too complicated."

"Seems like you already got things pretty complicated. ... And, by the way, you can drop me here at that cafe. That's where I cook."

I slowed and pulled into the snow-packed parking area.

Pick-up trucks, laden with ice in the wheel wells and red with mud splatter had taken all the spots close to the door. Everything looked frozen and mud-caked. The sun lit the sky with no sense of mercy.

"Thanks for the ride, and you better watch yourself. 'Less you want to take some of your classes from the INside," he laughed. "You might be in deep waters, way over your head."

I thought about what he said as the hours slid by on my way back home. I thought about desire and its price, about loneliness and how it would likely fill the rest of my days.

And, years would pass before I saw him again, this time with more at stake.

[To be continued?]

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