Two Men in a Pickup
Kirk feels a hand pressed against his chest, another on his brow and stroking through his hair, drops of something wet dribbling down the sides of his face. His ears fill with sound, a low roar, and as his eyes flutter open, he remembers it is the dry, hot wind in the cottonwood tree overhead, the leaves spinning and whirling, clattering together. Against the patches of bright sky between the high branches, a man's face bends over him under the broad brim of a cowboy hat. He's mopping Kirk's forehead with a wet bandana.
"You OK, son?" the man is saying. And Kirk remembers now that this same voice has been talking to him, trying to rouse him, for a long time.
"Can you drink some more?" the man is saying, and Kirk tries to say yes.
The man's hand slips behind his head, lifting him, and against his lips there's the drinking edge of a tin cup and the splash of wet, cool water. He lets it fill his mouth and swallows several times.
The man pulls the cup away and says, "Easy. Not too fast."
Kirk struggles to sit upright and takes a look around. The wash where the tree grows is nothing but dust and bone-dry; there are just a few stones strewn along the bottom. A few steps away, parked in the road, there's a pickup truck, cream-colored, with a stock rack on the back.
The man hands him the tin cup and lets him drink some more. "What are you doing out here?" he says. "Did your horse throw you?"
Kirk shakes his head. And it comes back to him how he was left somewhere out here last night by a guy who drove off with his car. He thinks he must have been lying in the shade of the tree for a long time, the pieces of it all come together so slowly.
"What's your name, son?" the man wants to know. "Where are you from?"
Kirk tells the man his name and says he needs to get back to town.
"What town?" the man says. He's squatting on his haunches, an old man, his face all wrinkles. "You're a long way from any town at all."
Kirk can't think of the name. "There was a rodeo," he says, remembering that he picked up a hitchhiker who said he was a bullrider.
"Well, I guess I know where that is," the old man says. "I was just there this morning."
And they keep talking for a while, the man pouring him water out of a screw-top jug and studying him like he might keel over again any second.
His name is Dexter, he says, and Kirk should consider himself damn lucky because just about nobody ever drives down this road anymore. He only comes this way once in a coon's age himself, to visit an old cemetery that's up over the next ridge.
"Us old farts, most of the folks we know are all dead and gone."
Kirk doesn't know much about this, just lets the old man ramble on.
"Where are your folks?" he asks Kirk.
"Utah, I guess."
"You're one helluva long way from home, son," the old man says, and his eyes soften. "Guess you'll be wantin' a ride back into town."
"How far is it to the highway?" Kirk asks.
"Too far to be walking without a hat," the old man says. "Don't know if you can survive heat stroke twice in the same day. You best come along with me."
Kirk gets to his feet, his head swimming, and he reaches out to the trunk of the tree. The old man gets up more slowly, legs and back stiff and yielding with some effort.
"Joints ain't what they used to be when I was a young pup your age," he says.
They walk back to the pickup, Kirk pulling on his tee shirt, foot-sore in the snakeskin boots.
"When's the last time you had something to eat?" the old man says.
"A while," Kirk says.
Getting into the truck, the old man points to a cooler on the floor. "You may find something in there to keep soul and body together."
Kirk lifts the top and looks inside. There's beer, he notices, and stuff in paper bags.
"That salami in there is the real thing. I got me a smoke house out back at home," the man says. The engine turns over, and the old man works the gearshift. "Try it. Got you a knife to cut a slice?"
Kirk drops his hand to his lap and then remembers Red tossing his pocket knife out the car window into the night.
"Here, use mine," the old man says, as the truck starts down the road, squeaking, the stock rack rattling. He pulls out a buck knife, snaps it open, and wipes the blade on his pants leg before he hands it to Kirk.
"And those bananas I got just this morning," he says.
Kirk considers them and has a memory of sitting in the rain with Rich and the Olsen twins.
"Something funny about bananas?" the old man says.
"No," Kirk says. "Nothing at all."
The cemetery is not far up the road, and Kirk says it's OK if the old man wants to stop for a while before taking him back to town.
When they get there, they find a falling down metal fence around a small grassy patch with a dozen or more old gravestones. Near the back stands a pine tree, twisted to one side like a weather vane. Some of the stones are broken off or lying flat.
"Can't keep the cows out," the old man says. "I've been wanting to put up a proper fence. But I'm gettin' too old for that." He gives out a wheezy chuckle and says, "Course if it warn't for the cows, it'd all be growed over."
He gets out of the truck and reaches over the tailgate into the back, where there's a gunny sack stuffed with plastic flowers.
Kirk feels the cab of the truck quickly heat up under the bright sun, and he gets out, where there's a breeze blowing. It lifts his hair and ripples the tee shirt over his chest. There's a long view in nearly every direction of the rolling grasslands. In the sun-drenched distance there are birds singing.
The old man steps over the fence and slowly walks among the headstones, stopping to read them and kneeling down to poke fistfuls of plastic flowers into the sandy soil.
Kirk takes a good look at the old man now, who stands in front of one stone, tipping back his hat, the gunny sack in one hand, and his thumb hooked into one back pocket of his jeans.
"Who are all these people?" Kirk says. The wind lifts his voice away as he speaks, and when the old man doesn't answer, he walks over to him to ask again.
"That's my folks over there," he points toward the back, under the pine tree, the branches stirring and sighing softly in the breeze. "Aunts and uncles, around over there, some of them never married. A couple cousins." His voice trails off.
"Who's this?" Kirk asks, wondering about the grave where the old man has been standing.
"This one was my buddy," he says. "His folks are right there next to him."
"Johnny?" Kirks says, reading the stone. The dates are 1897-1918. "Didn't live all that long."
"Influenza," the old man says. "Tough as nails, that boy. But it killed him."
Kirk doesn't know anyone who's died of anything.
"He was the best friend I ever had," the old man says quietly. "I don't mind saying I really missed him. I still do sometimes."
Kirk tries to think of anyone he'd miss if they were gone. Maybe Mike. Not Danny so much. Maybe Rich, a little.
"When I go, I want them to plant me right here beside him." The old man taps the toe of his boot on the empty plot next to them. "Right here looking out over all these hills where we used to ride our horses, and just sittin' together sometimes watching the sun set."
Kirk can't understand why it matters where you're buried if you're dead.
The old man coughs. "But my two kids seem to think this is not a place for their father. They think the cemetery in town is a whole helluva lot more convenient."
Kirk is now wondering how long they're going to be out here. He wants to get back to civilization. Back to where there are streets and houses and people that are alive. And a phone. It's time he called Mike, so Mike can come get him.
"Go get the cooler, son," the old man says. "We can sit a spell there in the shade." He points to a patch of grass where the branches of the pine reach far enough to cast a shadow.
Kirk walks back to the truck, the door still open, just as he left it. He reaches in, grabbing the handles of the heavy cooler and pulls it toward him, then lifts it to carry against his belly, over the fence and between the stones, where plastic roses and lilies now tilt upward in the bright sunlight.
"Looks like it's cooking up a storm," the old man says, looking off toward the far horizon, where clouds are building and the sky is darkening. Overhead, it is still a clear, deep blue, and a hawk slowly circles on the hot air.
Kirk sets down the cooler, remembering the beer he saw inside, and waits for the old man to offer him one.
"Yessiree," the old man says. He steps behind a stone and unzips his wranglers, pulling out a long penis with a thick head. "You're only young once. My grandpa told me that when I was your age, and I didn't believe him." He strokes down on his penis a couple times. "Then before you know, it's all over, and you got one foot in the grave."
Kirk feels the sun on his head and steps farther into the shade of the tree, where there's a thick carpet of pine needles under foot.
"Course that's not the worst of it," the old man is saying. "You can't take a piss when you want to, and it takes a miracle to get a hard-on."
Kirk doesn't even try to imagine this. He's got a dick that works fine.
"Look at this," the old man says. A little trickle falls from his penis into the grass between his boots. "I used to piss like a horse."
Kirk turns and looks out to where a cloud shadow has begun to glide along a ridge line. And the hot wind sighs in the tree.
The storm front fills half the sky by the time they get back to town. The old man has talked on and on about getting old. He's full of advice, which Kirk ignores. He doesn't seem to care if Kirk just sits there and says nothing. Maybe he just needs to talk a lot.
"Tar snakes," he says once after lighting up a cigarette.
"What?" Kirk says.
"Those black wiggly lines on the pavement." He points with the fingers holding his cigarette. "The roads get cracks in 'em in the winters. So the road crews come out and pour tar along the cracks. Looks like snakes."
"Yeah," Kirk says.
The old man puts the cigarette in his mouth and drives with both hands. "You never told me how you got way out there where I found you."
"Hitchhiking," Kirk says.
The old man thinks about this. "Helluva place for that."
"Yeah," Kirk says.
"Somebody give you a ride and let you off there?"
"Yeah, a ways from there."
"Kind of a dirty trick, doin' that," the old man says. "You gotta watch. Some people are no damn good."
"Yeah," Kirk says. He sees they're coming into town now.
"You were lucky I came along."
"Yeah," Kirk says. "You can leave me off here." He sees a pay phone along the highway by an ice cream stand. There's a Frosty Freeze sign in blue and white on the roof with a layer of snow painted across the tops of the letters, and there's a big ice cream cone over the front and dropping down past the roofline. Color pictures of sundaes and floats are taped on the inside of the windows.
The old man pulls off the highway onto the dirt parking lot. "Need any money?" he says, shoving a hand into his jeans pocket.
Kirk has his fingers on the door handle and then stops. The old man fishes out two crumpled bills and hands them to him. "Take it," he says.
Kirk takes the bills. "Thanks," he says.
"You're a good lad," the man says. "Bein' with you today brought back a lot of memories for an old man." His wrinkled face breaks into a crooked smile, and he puts a hand on Kirk's leg to give him a squeeze and then a few firm pats.
Kirk just wants to get away. "I better be goin'," he says. He opens the truck door and jumps down, walking toward the phone booth. He turns when he gets there, and the truck hasn't moved. The old man is looking at him, giving him a wave, and then slowly pulls away and onto the highway. Kirk lifts his hand to wave back and remembers that he didn't say goodbye. Maybe he should have.
It takes three calls before Mike gets home from work and finally answers the phone. As soon as Mike says hello and tells the operator he'll take a collect call, Kirk realizes he's glad to hear his voice.
"First," Mike says, "are you OK?" sounding a little pissed off.
"Yeah, I'm OK," Kirk says, like why wouldn't he be.
"Second," Mike says, "what the hell happened?" and he tells Kirk all about Danny's car.
"It's not my fault," Kirk says. "The guy took the keys and wouldn't give them back."
This seems to make no difference to Mike, who keeps on storming at him.
"Look," Kirk says, getting impatient. "I just want to come home."
"Home? And where would that be?"
"With you. I don't have any other place to go," Kirk says.
"No one does what you did and gets to call this home."
"That's not fair," Kirk says, feeling hurt.
"You come back here, and I'll tan your ass."
And this goes on for a while, until Mike starts to calm down. Maybe remembers he's paying for the call.
"Can you come get me?" Kirk says, when he thinks Mike is ready for him to ask a favor.
"I should make you hitchhike," Mike says. Kirk can see into the ice cream stand from where he is in the phone booth. A guy with a white cap and candy-striped apron is wiping down a shiny machine and looking back at him.
"OK. I'm running out of money, that's all," he says and starts to explain that he hasn't had anything to eat, figuring it's not a lie since the old man's smoked salami doesn't count. It tasted like shoe leather.
"Danny's out there looking for you," Mike says, as if he wanted to hear Kirk beg for a ride before telling him this.
"He's been trying to find you."
"Look, you little prick. You got some people worried. And that includes your friend Rich."
"Why's he worried?"
Mike is suddenly silent.
"Are you still there?" Kirk says. He glances back toward the ice cream stand. The guy is still watching him.
"Do you have the brains you were born with?" Mike says.
Kirk is getting tired of this. "Just tell Danny to come pick me up," he says.
"Where the hell are you?"
Kirk steps out of the phone booth and looks up at the sign on the roof. "It's a Frosty Freeze."
"Can you give me some idea where that is?"
"It's along the highway," Kirk says, not knowing what else to say.
"What town are you in?" Mike says, pausing between each word like he's talking to someone deaf.
"I don't know," Kirk says.
"Will you ask somebody?"
Kirk puts down the phone and walks over to the ice cream stand. The guy sees him coming and swings open a little window, letting out a breath of cold air.
"What town is this?" Kirk asks him. The guy is old as the teachers he had in high school. And about as slow.
"Crawford," the guy finally says, like nobody's ever asked him that question before.
Kirk turns away and heads back to the phone. He picks up the receiver and says, "Crawford."
"OK, just stay where you are," Mike says. "Don't go anywhere. The next time Danny calls, I'll tell him where to look for you."
Kirk wonders how Danny can do that if he doesn't have a car. "Is he driving the truck?" he asks. But Mike has already hung up.
Kirk puts the receiver back and walks over to the ice cream stand again. This time he looks at the pictures taped to the windows and asks for a chocolate malt.
The storm when it comes is mostly gusts of wind and some raindrops and dirt flying around. And a clap or two of thunder. The air cools for a moment and then goes hot again. Kirk sits on a bench at the side of the building, finishes his chocolate malt and tosses the paper cup into a trash can.
An old paint-chipped Studebaker drives onto the lot and parks under the trees at the back. Two men without shirts get out of the car and head for the front window. One has greasy hair, slicked back, jeans slung low and loose on his hips, sideburns and a tattoo on his arm. The other has a crewcut and his big butt is squeezed into a tight pair of levi's, the buttons pulling on his fly.
Kirk can hear them ordering hot dogs and cokes, and when they come back around with their food, they are laughing about something. The one with the tattoo catches his boot heel on an uneven patch in the sidewalk and comes to a stumbling stop. Kirk figures they've both been drinking.
"You try to trip me, you little fucker, " the guy says.
Kirk glances up at him.
"Yeah, I'm talking to you," the guy says.
"Not me," Kirk says.
"Leave him alone," the crewcut guy says. "You're trippin' over your own feet."
"Fuck you, he tripped me," the other guys says, and the two of them stand there arguing about it.
"Hold my hot dog," the one with the tattoo says. "I'm gonna pop him one."
The other one starts laughing again, finally bending over, unable to stand upright under the humor of the situation. "I'm not gonna hold your hot dog, you dumb fuck."
Kirk has the growing suspicion that the two of them are about to gang up on him. If he stays sitting there any longer, he'll wind up at their mercy, one way or another. Things are just headed in that direction.
He jumps up from the bench, walks quickly away and around the corner of the building, without looking back. Then he keeps walking straight, going faster, until he's running as fast as the snakeskin boots will let him.
Now he's cutting across lawns, dodging around houses into backyards, around bushes and trashcans, stumbling through a vegetable garden, and surprising two dogs in a pen behind someone's back porch. They leap around in a sudden fit of barking, clawing at the chicken wire fence and at each other.
He stops and ducks down behind an old car, rusting under a tree, and waits, catching his breath, and begins to think about circling back round to the ice cream stand, as soon as the coast is clear, where he can watch for Danny. The dogs still sound like an alarm he's set off. It might be smart, he thinks to put more distance between them and himself.
He slowly eases onto his feet and turns down an alley that takes him past a half dozen houses. At the corner of a garage, he hops over a low fence and crawls under a bush, the branches snagging the back of his tee shirt. He lies flat on the dirt, breathing hard. Under the bush, it is hot, and sweat begins to drip from his face. Looking out, he can see nothing but a lawn sprinkler making lazy, loopy arcs of spray at the end of a long green hose.
The dogs are still barking, and he can hear a man's voice shouting at them to shut up. Finally they do.
Kirk counts to a hundred and then twists on his belly until he can pull himself up on his knees and get to his feet. He checks the alley both ways before climbing back over the fence. No sign of life but a black cat pouncing on something in the weeds.
Taking his steps more carefully now, he walks until he gets to a street. Deciding whether to go one way or another, he hears a car coming up the alley behind him. He steps to the side against a chain link fence, and the front fender glides by, inches from his leg. When it's nearly past him, it stops short and the door opens. It is the Studebaker, and the man stepping out is the crewcut guy in the levi's.
"Look who we got here," he says, grinning.
Kirk starts to turn back, but the other guy has come round behind the car, and they have him between them and the fence.
"You look in a big hurry to get somewhere," the crewcut guy says.
"Yeah," the other one says. "Maybe you'd like us to give you a ride."
"Naw, I don't need a ride," Kirk says.
"My pal here thinks we might have scared you off back there," the crewcut guy says. "Did we scare you off?"
"No, you didn't," Kirk says.
"Then what did you run for?" says the other one.
"I wasn't running."
"Sure looked that way to us," says the crewcut guy. He's holding his coke in one hand, and Kirk can smell the whisky he's poured into it.
"I need to get somewhere," Kirk says, trying to push past the guy with the tattoo.
The guy grabs him by the arms. "Not so fast," he says.
Kirk pulls his knee up and tries to clip him in the balls. But the guy sees it coming and has already turned sideways.
All at once, there are four hands grabbing at him, bodies coming together to pin him against the fence. Their bare skin is slick with sweat, and the cords are standing out on the tattooed guy's neck.
"We just wanna be friendly," he keeps saying, between clenched teeth.
Kirk tries to twist around, jerking his arms and legs to get free. He hears his own voice caught in his throat as he pushes against them.
But they muscle him into the open door of the car, until he's down on the seat.
"There's no call for all this," the tattooed guy says, laughing now. "We're just trying to help you out a little. Get you where you're goin'."
"That's all. We just wanna be nice," says the other guy, both hands clamped around Kirk's wrists.
Kirk says nothing. His heart is pounding. The car is still idling, and he thinks of pulling away from them, grabbing the steering wheel and taking off. But both of the men are holding him down.
They shove him farther into the car, and the crewcut guy squeezes in beside him, pushing against him with his hip. He reaches onto the roof where he's left his coke and then slams the door shut, while the tattooed guy runs around to the other side. He gets in, puts the car in gear and pulls away real slow.
"See?" he says. "Nice and easy."
It is hot in the car. On each side of Kirk the shoulders and legs of the two men press in against him.
The crewcut guy opens the glove compartment and reaches in for a pint of bourbon. "Try a nip of this," he says, holding it to Kirk. "Good for what ails ya."
"Help you relax," says the other guy.
Kirk shakes his head no.
"There you go again being so unfriendly," says the tattooed guy. "Looks like somebody didn't teach you any manners."
The car pulls out into the street, and there's a low rumble from the exhaust as they head toward the highway. There, off to the right, Kirk sees the ice cream stand, with its blue and white snow-covered sign. The tattooed guy turns the wheel the other way and they speed off in the opposite direction.
"Gimme that hooch," he says to the other guy, who passes it to him. He takes a slug and sets the bottle in his crotch, between his legs.
"My buddy here thinks you're kinda cute," he says, knocking his knee against Kirk's.
"Knock off that shit," the other guy says.
"Now don't say he don't give you a rise in your levi's."
"Shut your fuckin' mouth."
Kirk can feel the crewcut guy tensing up beside him.
"Just teasin' ya," says the tattooed guy. "Can't you take a little joke?"
"It's not funny."
The tattooed guy takes the pint from between his legs and knocks back another swallow. "Don't see why you're gettin' all hot and bothered," he says. "This was your idea."
"You're lyin' outta your ass," says the other guy, leaning across Kirk and jabbing with his finger.
"Seems to me you were the one itchin' to come after him."
"Well," the tattooed guy says, "if it's not true, then let's see some proof."
Kirk is looking down. The crewcut guy's fists are clenching and unclenching in his lap.
"If it's not true," the tattooed guy says, "all you have to do is prove it."
And he steps on the gas as they head down the highway, out of town.