Mars, Black Earth, Minneapolis

#6.2 in the Gap Decade Chronicles

Ride Twelve
Cincinnati to Bloomington

I still have the last of the five bottles the Corrosion Engineer bought me but he took the bottle opener with him. I go into the gas station to see if they have one. The counter guy behind the bulletproof glass says in a thick Hindi accent that if I don’t leave the premises immediately he’ll call the cops. He picks up the phone and holds it to his ear and holds his index finger perilously over the phone. Like we’re in a duel. Like it’s high noon and the Man in Black has just swaggered into his convenience store with a bottle of beer and asked for a goddam bottle opener. So I try and pop it open on the curb outside and the whole neck breaks off and some glass gets in the bottle. And I’m near broke so I pour the beer over my hand into my camping mug and try and catch any shards. And I wait in the dark and take a sip of it but it doesn’t taste as good as the first four and I pour it out onto the asphalt. And I call Hausman in Bloomington.

Hausman grew up with Bensen and Runkel and me Up North and goes to college in Indiana. He’s a musician but studies something else. He lives in Bloomington and works two or three jobs, just like he did in high school. Just like he always will. Does this road a lot because he’s been shacking up with a country girl from Kentucky that likes to go home on weekends. He fetches me in Cincinnati and we drive back through the farmlands of the Midwest but all is dark and there’s little to see save gas stations and fast food restaurants on the cloverleafs.
What do you want to see in Bloomington?
Dunno. It’s your village.
I have to work tonight, but I can drop you off somewhere.
Sure. Where are you working?
I cater parties at a country club in Bloomington.
A country club?
Like on tv?
What’s it like?
What do you mean?
Are the real country clubs like the ones on tv?
Kind of. On tv they only show the best ones. They’re not all like that. But the people that go there, they all need to think their country club is like that. Like they’re Englishmen dividing up a map of Africa over toddies between rounds of golf. But really they’re wearing GAP slacks and sweaters and some are barely able to pay the dues. Everybody has to have the right car and the right wife and all that, just so they look like they belong. And all that costs money. Real Money. If they can’t make it work and withdraw their membership everybody tsk tsks like they’re filing for bankruptcy or something. So they have to work their ass off to stay at level.
Sounds like poor people.
First thing you learn working around rich people is they still play by some of the same horsecock rules as poor people. But with a bigger buy-in. Makes no sense. Just keep worrying and worrying about the same stupid shit. Except for maybe the really really rich. And nobody gets to see what they worry about, probably not even the catering staff.
Why do you work there?
Man got to work. And I bring home free leftovers every night. Spend almost nothing at the store and eat like a king. You hungry?
My roommates are at a bar. I’ll drop you off on the way to work. I get off about the same time the bar closes. You got a flask?
There’s a fifth in the glove compartment. Just order one drink and then in the bathroom pour the flask into the glass all night and nobody will bug you. Only cheap way to drink in Bloomington.

Hausman drops me off at a bar called Mars and introduces me to his roommates. They say I’m lucky as it is auspicious to arrive in Bloomington on Penny Pitcher night and ask me how I know Alaska. Roughly fifty percent of all people from home that come South for college end up getting the nickname Alaska from their peers. It makes for all kinds of confusion when years later their old college friends come up to visit and everybody answers to the same old undergrad name. There are two pitchers of watery light beer in front of us but they come from different companies and the Indiana Boys argue about which one carries the richer taste. We down both pitchers with as discerning palettes as we can manage and they explain the numerous faults of living in Bloomington, Indiana. The basketball coach just left. Getting into the fraternity parties without joining a fraternity is getting harder. Their landlord, who claims to be the Dalai Lama’s cousin, charges way too much in rent for run down old farmhouses and studio apartments. There is a general lack of places to find work after Twentytwo and the amount of loans necessary to stay in school grows a little more depressing every year.

The bar itself is a facsimile of informally franchised college bars everywhere. The vintage street signs and advertisements, some authentic, some not, no way to tell the difference. The formulaic canned music, the crowd, and the brand-name beers and cleverly named shot specials and free teeshirts they give you if you sign up for a creditcard. The Business Plan that we mistake for our Shared Culture.
Alaska says you’re hitching across the country.
By the time you get home, it’ll be winter.
Sounds like a bad plan.
Just wouldn’t want to come home to the cold and dark.
You miss it. Especially when it’s hot like this. The first thing you miss is the long winter. The way the snow covers the land and makes everything beautiful.

And this is obviously the wrong thing to say. From the look on his face he believes that instead of snow I said garbage. Or excrement. He looks disgusted with the idea. And with the pamby in front of him talking about how beautiful it all is. I thank him for the beer and try to change the subject to football but he’s on to me so I go outside to catch some air. There is a cop car in front of the bar and an underage girl handcuffed to a street sign, sitting on the ground, crying woefully. Her legs in her skirt spread out on the concrete and her free hand running nervously through her hair and mascara and mucus both mixing with her tears. Her friends are begging a cop to let her go. They are inarticulate and hysterical in their pleading and the cop looks harried by his task of caretaking the Peace from all this silliness. The sight of it makes me want to just start walking again from here. Keep moving. But my pack is in the boys’ car and I haven’t gotten proper time to visit with Hausman yet. The night is dark and a warm drizzle begins to fall on the crying girl, who doesn’t notice amidst the downfall of everything else. There is nothing I can do for her. Or for the cop.

When I come back inside the boys are playing a game where they attempt to predict the next song the DJ is going to play. One of them is five for five. Two girls have joined them. Donna and her friend Sandy introduce themselves. Sandy is pretty enough to nonchalantly drink the last of the boys’ light beer without asking. Donna is darker hair with her own purchased darker drink and surly. She’s crafted a style of appearance as if she worked in a factory in the World War, ageless saucy and wise. Donna is tired of Mars, of Bloomington, of most everything really. I find her the most interesting thing here immediately. I’d like to hear her story but I am suddenly drug away. The herd is moving towards the other end of the bar by some unknown signal, by that same internal clock that allows them to predict the next song, by Habit. The boys put their arm around me and wink and pour more pints and we are in front of a stage, a stage that is just now lighting up. We are pressed up against the stage by the crowd behind us and perhaps the band is starting but there are no instruments on the stage.

A boy with a microphone enters into the spotlight and asks the crowd how everybody’s doing tonight and cheers all around but he maintains he is unable to hear them. He asks anew How’s everybody DOING tonight and the cheers much louder than before and he is satisfied enough to begin the Mars Hot Bod Competition. The Hot Bod Competition is for both men and women. People from the crowd volunteer and form lines on opposite sides of the stage. Men on the right, women on the left. There are more women than men. Judges are selected also from the crowd and given placards with numbers One through Ten on them. The contestants are instructed to compete by dancing for one minute to a song selected by the DJ and are then scored by the judges on their placards through interpreting the volume of the crowd. Highest score gets a twohundreddollar tab at the bar. The boys behind me shout at the announcer to try and get on the judging panel but are passed over. They point at the contestants on the stage and pick their favorites and eventually a fivedollar wager is made. Once the judges are perched on their stools at the back of the room and enough people have volunteered, the DJ cues the music and the competition quickly underway. It all happens with incredible swiftness.

The first woman makes an effort at Burlesque but one minute is insufficient time for subtlety. And even if it were, this crowd would not be impressed. She receives a barely passing score and is forgotten as the next man in line takes her place. He takes his shirt off and flexes his abdominal muscles and fares far better. Each dancer comes out in one minute intervals as if from some factory conveyor, and each in turn outdoes the last and is scored the higher for it. By midway through the competition we are not at a college bar at all anymore, we are at a strip club. A strip club where the students are the audience are the entertainers are the audience in turn. A heavy girl falls clumsily over trying to take her pants off too quickly and the crowd laughs and jeers. She rises triumphantly with her shirt off and one great leg out of her jeans and she is Defiant and her defiance is Strength and the crowd turns back in her favor as quickly as it had turned away. She receives a near perfect average and the volume shakes the walls. The shouts and chants are disorienting. I am pressed against the stage and I look behind me but there is no way to get out and all the grins are full of teeth and the raised glasses are held aloft in fists and there is no Escaping This.

The final contestant of the eve has seen all her competition come before her and is out of her clothing with astounding swiftness. She is naked upon the stage and enveloped in sound and still with thirty seconds to spare she bends over and stretches her legs and spanks herself, the action strangely muted by the deafening sound of the crowd. She drops to all fours, crawling around the filthy stage on her hands and knees and her eyes are glazed and drunken. Perhaps she will be a Pharmacist someday. Or she is going to school for Business. Or Anthropology. She rolls over on her back on the sticky stage as the song is cut off and looks up at the scoreboard to see Perfect Tens. She shall drink for free for some time in this place. The Champion is on her knees again arms raised in victory just two armslengths from me and she stares out at the crowd and we make eye contact. Something in her expression changes. Maybe because I am staring. Or because I am not cheering. Or because of some clue that I am not a student, that I do not belong here. Her eyebrows tilt downwards and she shouts at me through the din.
What are you looking at?
I said what the hell are you staring at, pervert?
I dunno. Nothing.
What’s wrong with you?

But the announcer has come up behind her and gives her back her clothes and her rage fades as she stands and raises her arm again and the crowds cheer her into Legend as the stage lights turn off.

The Indiana boys are whooping and socking me in the shoulder and Man did you see the impression Alaska Junior made on that last one and You owe me five bucks and Next round’s on you and I will take my goddam bag from the fucking car and start walking onto the Dark Freeway if that’s what it takes safety be damned but there is no staying in this place. Donna is still smoking at the table in back.
You look a little nervous.
Donna I’ve got to get out of here.
Lucky you. We’re going to Madison.
That’ll do.
It’s North. You said you were headed West.
Just Out.
How soon can you be ready?
All my things are in the boys’ car. I can be ready now. I can be ready Right Now.

Ride Thirteen
Bloomington to Madison

The pure flatness of Northern Indiana is all the more striking in the dark. In the daylight the Plains hold within them an inherent immensity but in the darkness your field of vision is only as far out as the headlights and there is no horizon, no vanishing point, just a black curtain thirty yards ahead that is recurrently swept away to reveal a land identical to the land you occupy, and there is a feeling of infinite plainness because not even the faroff curvature of the earth is visible to promise some novel landform that might lie on the other side of its circumference. Farmhouses appear suddenly out of the blackness, glowing white clapboards like apparitions. We are quiet in the dark and Donna behind the wheel and her friend Sandy asleep in the back seat and I stare out wide awake hoping for something to focus on but nothing comes for some time. The farmhouses turn to gas stations turn to outlying residences and as the buildings get closer together I anticipate our passage through another city but as we cross through the center of Gary Indiana it appears abandoned. Comically overbuilt. Giant manors with boarded up second stories and long-closed post offices made of stone and half-empty blocks where the weeds take back the land like some unknown type of bomb has gone off rather recently that took out all but the most robustly constructed edifices. There are no people to be seen and there is no way to guess from the car what caused the evacuation of this place. Donna said it was no bomb. She says it was a demographic shift, which sounds just as sinister. Used to be a bustling place. Then all the people that could just decided to flee, all at once, leaving nothing but their monuments and those too poor to follow.

Even in Chicago, which Donna is trying unsuccessfully to go around instead of through, we see no people as we drift under towering ghostlike refineries lined with strings of thousands of single wee little lights in vertical arrangements and they look nothing like buildings and nothing like anything that was meant for humans. She finds the Expressway finally and we go around the metropolis and when we come around North of the city back into the plains they are just as dark and flat as the ones to its South, but more welcome than before.
Bladerunner Shit, eh?
You looked spooked already.
I guess.
How long have you been on the road?
Almost a week.
Looks like longer.
This stretch, anyway. What’s in Madison?
An old girlfriend. But that’s just the excuse. Just like to leave Bloomington on the weekends.
What’s Madison like?
Like Bloomington.
It’s all about getting out, you know.
By the time the sun comes up we’ll be in a new place. That’s what you need, Alaska. It’ll be alright.
I know.

And she’s right. Somewhere around Beloit the sun comes up and when we drive into Madison it is still rising low above the dewy ground without heat. The town is still sleeping and we search out a free place to lay our heads and rest until it gets warm. Madison is green and the shopfronts inviting and the lake is peaceful and silent. Donna begins to list off her favorite places to get a Bloody Mary and Sandy wakes up and bids us stop at a newspaper machine for the Funnies. We stop the car at Tenney Park and everybody needs a nap but the girls don’t have a tent and the car smells horrible so we lay out my blue tarp flat on the damp grass and then we roll up all three of us inside it like kids steamrolling at a slumber party and just as we’re all wrapped around each other legs and giggles and sleepy grins and wandering hands all crushed and cuddled it begins to rain a little. And I’m not worried anymore about getting wet or about the chasm of understanding between farmers and migrants or about Mars or Bloomington or about what’s Wrong with Me anymore because if you’ve got two girls and a blue tarp standing between you and whatever the world’s dishing out that day there’s not a thing gonna dent you. You are going to be just fine. I fall asleep. And I think maybe they do too.

The drizzle passes and the rising humidity in the tarp wakes us and everybody’s hungry and thirsty. We split a meal three ways at a sandwich shop taking turns biting and then walk down to the Memorial Union and Madison is awake. This is not a sleepy little town. This is a whitebread bohemia grab bag of blonde dreadlocks and hacky sack in one doorway and collared shirts tucked into expensive jeans in the next and the most naturally beautiful girls in the nation without their hair done at all, wearing dumpy sweatpants with the word PINK written on the butt even if the pants are blue and tucked into boots sewn like slippers walking quickly to the coffee shops, and boys and girls of all types walk back sleepily and disheveled from last night’s parties and if it is this full in the summer then the fall must be an Onslaught. We sip drinks and once it gets late enough they call their friend. But no boys are allowed in the house. So I have them drop me on the highway out of town.

Ride Fourteen
Madison to Black Earth

Donna and Sandy bring me outside Madison to a church parking lot and they say I should make a sign on a piece of cardboard because that’s better than a thumb. They find a sharpie and an empty box for groceries in the car and I think the sign should say WEST but they say you need a goal so they decide on MINNEAPOLIS but none of us know how to spell it. After trying twice and being unsatisfied and almost out of cardboard Sandy writes TWIN CITIES on it. But it’s written in girl handwriting and I feel strange holding it once they’re gone because it’s really girly. Like one step away from having hearts dot the i’s so I put it in the dumpster in the church parking lot and get picked up fifteen minutes after they left me there. There’s no room in the cab so I lie down on my tarp in the truckbed and fall asleep in the sun. It’s an incredibly peaceful way to sleep, not cold because the sun’s on you and not hot because there’s just enough exposure to the wind and my dreams are full and lovely and I wake up when he shakes my shoulder and tells me I’m in Black Earth.
What is Black Earth?
It’s a town. I’m headed South from here.

So I thank him and I think BLACK EARTH would have looked pretty impressive written on a cardboard sign, and everything seems to work out fine no matter how you go about things.

Ride Fifteen
Black Earth to Roadside Highway Fourteen Somewheres

Wellkept Buick Sedan dark blue with lighter blue original upholstery and the driver likely in his eighties and just as well preserved as the car. His shirt is neatly pressed and tucked in and he wears a flat cap and comfortable shoes with no laces but the lines in his face and his gnarled hands on the wheel hold within their creases and calluses the years spent outside doing real work. I would expect retirees in the afternoons taking their cruisers on a promenade through the country to be generally chatty but after few particulars he grows quiet and far away and I stare out the window and we pass through little towns brimming with normal everyday life and each with a standardized metal sign but a handcrafted logo on it reading Arena, Spring Green, Lone Rock, Sextonville, Boaz.

This is a tamed land. There is no way to know what it looked like before our coming. The hills sit in repose and await the far-off harvest and the shoulderless highway curves through them without ever presuming to make an offensive cut in grade. It is beautiful here. Each cultivated area hugs the flat valleys and then the slow hillside but leaves a woods at the top of the hills, like a crewcut for the land. The Elder at the wheel starts to fidget and shake in that way that Elders sometimes do, or maybe he didn’t start just then but it is then that I noticed, the way you stare at a tree that looks solid and realize that it is always swaying, slightly. The bright sky without a cloud and maybe I’ll nap again and I look to see if he’d mind and he is shaking more and scratching scratching so I wake up a bit.

And he is not scratching. He is squeezing the crotch of his slacks, kneading it with those knobby hands and then he sees me looking at his hand and then his hand scrambles out towards me at that same slack spot and grabs me there, right there in the Junk.

I don’t know what I shout but it’s a Shout and I jump too with pulse up and blood in my neck and alert but his retreat is just as sudden and I think How fast are we going and look out the window but he comes no closer. He has recoiled across the wide seat as far as he can and is pressed against the Driverside Door, trying to press the atoms of his body through the atoms of the door and trembling and the car trembles slightly with his old hand at the wheel and he is terrified. Maybe he is waiting for a beating. Or maybe he is waiting for nothing. Maybe all he’d planned out was the grab. Or there was no plan at all and it came without premeditation, came from some dark place deeply buried. But he is shaking now. Shaking. I wonder how long he’s been pent up in this place. How hard it might be for him here. Or maybe he’s just ill. Sick. No way to know which is which with all this adrenaline in me. But now he is more scared than I. He’s made his move and now he is terrified. Terrified of me. And all of this at fifty miles an hour in this beautiful place, on this perfect day. The shock subsides in me but not in him, so I make a solid voice and I say

I’ll make a deal with you. You pull over right here and let me out. Right Now. And we both go on with our days and we don’t worry about any of this again.

And that’s what he did. I got out without speaking. And I suspect we were both equally happy to be safely rid of each other, so that this is nothing more than a short vignette embedded in our separate stories, and not a story in itself.

Ride Sixteen
Route Fourteen to La Crosse

There’s no gas station and no shade and no way for me to know quite where I am. Just bees and fields and the silence of a sunny day in Middle America. Not much traffic either. For ten minutes, no cars pass and I become more relaxed in the sun and all my adrenaline fades in the heat.

I sit for fifteen and a truck pulls up. Shined and waxed, black Dodge with a pile of lumber in the back, muffler modified to ignore its purpose. Two kids just younger than me on the bench seat, girl seated close up on the driver left of center. We drive West along the highway.
You really hitchhiking all the way home?
If I can.
Why not buy a car?
I’m out of money.
We’re saving up. Already own this truck outright. I work at the hardware store. Cristine works at the Dairy Queen. We got three thousand in a bank account our parents don’t even know about. We’re outta here day after graduation.

They smile at each other knowingly.
Where you headed?
Depends. David might get scouted and play college ball.
Shush Cristine. She’s dreaming. I’m not getting scouted.

She rolls her eyes.
You might. He’s the fastest back in Vernon County.
Buncha small schools with white running backs. I’m not getting scouted nowhere. Besides, I’m not going from being owned one place to being owned in a new place. Suits me to just forget about sports altogether.
Anyway, if he doesn’t, we’re heading out to Arizona. You can buy a house there and turn it over for twice as much in five years. David’s a carpenter, and I can work at a Dairy Queen anywhere while he works on the house. They say people are flipping houses for up to three times how they find them out in Phoenix. And it never rains. And everybody there has a pool, and there’s no winter and no taxes and no corn or soy fields. Or cows. No corn or soy or cows Anywhere.
I’m not a carpenter. I work at a hardware store. But I can work with wood some. We could live in a pop-top on this truck and build something out there. Land is even cheaper than homes. They got more of it than they know what to do with.
I’m not living in a truck David. We need a house. A real one. Fisher you ever been to Arizona in your travels?
Naw. I heard about it though. People moving there in droves.
I read the population grew by three hundred percent the decade after air conditioners were invented.

I look out the window and there truly is nothing but cows and corn and soy fields in all directions. But at least it’s green. I remember the brownness of the West, the vastness. The way the Colorado earth seemed somehow crowded up unto the ceiling of the sky. It seems pleasant here in Wisconsin, microcosmic and cozy. It’s hot but the truck is cooled, and the highways ignore the dull orthogonality of the West. Instead the highway follows the land in the way Man knew how before satellites scaled the world up for him, when roads were built with shovels instead of pencils and computers. These routes are older, in their way, than the fields they traverse, for the paths bear in their routing a memory of horses, of wagons and caravans. But these commodity-laden fields display no memory of foods that once fed a human. This land forms a part of a grand economic equation outside the comprehension of the eating man. They make Cornsyrup and Cowfeed and Plastic and Newspaperprint here, and a man would starve in the middle of the most fertile fields of America, and these kids see it and feel some falseness, in that tetrachromatical way that fades to blindness over time. And maybe the desert holds something for them. Something more than what you can eat. Some new beginning. Maybe that’s what the West always was. Hell. I like it here in Wisconsin. Everything’s just pleasant enough. The occasional old deviant or no. They drop me in LaCrosse.
Good luck out there.
You too. Where you hope to stop tonight?
Dunno. Maybe make Minneapolis by dark.
You’d best get a move on. Twin Cities are a ways away yet.
I thank you for the ride. Maybe I’ll see you in the desert someday.

They are tickled by the idea. They have shared their secret and instead of a scolding they got an endorsement. He shakes my hand. She gives me a bottled water. You take care now. It’s hot out. And they drive off along the tamed pleasure garden that is the Midwest landscape, roaring in the oversize truck. License plate says OUTAHR.

Ride Seventeen
La Crosse to La Crescent

The bugs are everywhere and it’s grown heinous hot. I meet any Northerner wants travel advice I promise till the day I die it’ll be Wait till October to cross this country on foot. It was easier when there was just Route Fifty to follow but I don’t have a map and all this NorthWest diagonal business has me guessing. Need a rest stop where I can see a large format map. Donna said to look for Highway SixtyOne. I don’t see a signpost anywhere. I walk into the Subway Sandwich Shop and look at the menu but I’m just about out of money. I’ve got enough for a SixInch and then I’m officially busted. Two cops come into of the restaurant and order FootLongs, see me and my pack, ask me my business. It’s my first time talking to the cops this trip. They are extra polite.
Passing through?
Yes sir.
Where you headed?
Alright. Where are you headed Today?
Minneapolis I think.
How’s the road treating you?
Well, the mosquitoes have found me.
The mosquitoes are hell here in La Crosse. It’s the river. They love the water.
Same thing at home.
You headed to college?
Naw. Just traveling.
Alright. Let us give you a ride across the bridge.
The bridge goes West out of town.
Thank you Officers.

And nobody ever feels entirely at ease climbing into the back of a cop car but they drive me slowly past the landing and over the bridge and they have blessed air conditioning and an incredible amount of equipment in the front seat. A CB. A shotgun. A little hand computer. A couple bottles of water. A stuffed animal. The back seat is empty. This town looks too slow for a fully-loaded cop car. Like it should be an old Ford LTD with no grill between the front seat and the back and a tape deck playing church music. But there is a grill. And the radio has dispatch on it. And I’m hungry and realize I’d forgotten to buy my sandwich.
Welcome to La Crescent.
We cross the bridge, we’re not in La Crosse anymore. We’re in La Crescent. And we’re not in Wisconsin anymore, either. We’re in Minnesota. You’re just about to where you’re heading.

And he’s right. There’s a sign and everything. Two, actually. First one: Welcome to Minnesota in freeway green and white state officialdom. Second one: Welcome to La Crescent — Apple Capital of Minnesota hand painted with love and effort in four colors.
How long to Minneapolis from here?
Not long. Plenty of time. Now. This has been a fine afternoon. You seem like a good kid. But I doubt we’re going to see you again here in La Crosse, are we?
I said we aren’t going to see you again. Now you think carefully and tell me if that’s correct.
That’s correct, officer. You aren’t going to see me again.
Well. Good day then, young man. And good luck.

And they let me out at the bridge as the sun goes down. And it is beautiful, the sunset washing colors onto the river. Bugs or no, it’s always a pretty sunset over a river.

Ride Eighteen (Take One)
Outside La Crescent

It’s bad practice to hitchhike at night. There’s seldom enough of a shoulder. I have no reflective clothing. People buzzing home from Happy Hour out there in the dark and cutting quickly through the soft hot night in their cars, lost in their radios and in their private thoughts, in the peculiar daydreams of our manic culture where the only time we get to sit peacefully still is in a car moving faster than man was ever meant to go. I’m up against a guardrail on a ledge and I’d rather set up camp somewheres but the cops made me uneasy and I don’t want to get found sleeping off the roadside come dawn. Tarp’s too blue, should have bought a camo one. I shine my headlamp sideways out towards my thumb and hope it can be seen far enough away to at least make someone slow down. They whoosh by me in the night. Mosquitoes keep me company and though the sun’s long gone I have more sweating to do yet. Up North the sun barely comes up in the winter and never goes down in the summer and I’ve been two years on the road now but it still doesn’t feel normal for it to be hot and dark at the same time.

Been at it forty minutes when a truck pulls up. Ford. I’m happy to be off the guardrail. I say thank you and I’m half climbing before I get a look at him. The man is plump and mulleted with a baseball cap and a white tank top. No pants. No underwear. A cold can of High Life between his legs. Sweating, both.
Evenin. Where you headed?
Sir. You got no pants and no underwear on.
Don’t you worry, I’m not one of them weirdos. It’s just too damn hot and I was needin a beer. I got another one if you like.
Sir if you don’t mind I’ll just wait for the next one.

He wavers ever so slightly. A brief second of silence. But he recovers and smiles.
Alright then. Suit yourself.

He tips his forehead and I close the door softly and he’s a set of brakelights in the dark and then he ceases to exist out there in the night.

That was the only ride I turned down the whole trip.

Ride Eighteen (Take Two)
Outside La Crescent to Minneapolis

A car pulls up a hundred yards past me. Means he hesitated, had time to think about it, then decided to pick me up. Might not pick up people that often. I say Thank you extra polite before climbing in and ask if he’s going to Minneapolis.
I am. I suppose you’re happy to be out of the dark.
Hell. I’m just happy you’re wearing pants. Last guy wasn’t.

He chuckles and shakes his head.
Crazies out there. Bound to happen. You should buy a car like regular people.
Headed home on the cheap. Can’t even afford the bus.
Sounds like you need a job too. Get you a job and get you a car. It’s America. Everybody got a car.
I don’t even need a car and I got one. I’m a conductor: could travel by train for free anywhere I want. Still drive a car. Nothing like it. Drive a car for fun, drive a train for work.
People still drive trains?
You bet your bacon people still drive trains. You think robots do it? Whole freight system of America runs on trains.
Not where I’m from. Planes and barges, mostly.
You from Easter Island? Timbuktu? Everything you eat in a store, everything you buy, everything you heat your house with, comes by train in the night while you sleep. Freight runs the Modern World. The exchange of goods across distances. I’m telling you. Trains made this country what it is. Opened the West.
Is that true?
Of course it is. Nobody knows history. Everybody always complaining that we need commuter rail, so yuppies can live in the suburbs and still get into town when gas prices are high. Like Europe. Always like Europe, with these people. You ever been to Europe? Freight’s run by truck drivers. Lorries. Totally inefficient. In America trade is run by rail first; people can drive their cars. That’s the way it works. And if it works, don’t mess with it.
You let people hitch on your trains, like in the old days? Hobos?
Hell no. Long time gone. You see a freeloader on your train, you can beat his ass and turn him in and the cop won’t even scold you for it. Trains are for goods. Cars are for people. I picked you up in my car, though, cause Damn look at That

Two deer stand like statues in the road staring at us, white with headlight upon them and solid yet dainty. We are going seventy, carving through the dark towards them and only a second between us. Less. The driver grimaces and swerves left, splits them like goalposts. Gracefully, Perfectly. Swerves smoothly right, back into the lane, no oncoming. The deer stand immobile throughout, alert but unmoving through some hypnosis. Close enough to touch with the window rolled down. No panic, no stampede. They stand solid and vulnerable and ready for the Fates and the Driver to decide their destinies for them. I look back but it is black night and the deer could be there or gone, and we missed them in that instant. We are a half mile past before it even feels like it happened. The driver exhales slowly.
At work, I’da just blown the horn and plowed through‘em. That’s another difference.

He drops me in Minneapolis at a Subway Sandwich Shop. My money pays for the exact same SixInch I’d decided on a hundredfifty miles South in La Crosse. And I am busted. I catch them a couple minutes before they close. Sit on the curb. I’m somewhere near the main university. The street is alive with the drunken children of the Upper Middle Class, wandering home from underage parties and corner taverns. A kid stands watch while his buddy vomits in the alley. A gaggle of girls passes. The drunkest is the biggest is the loudest. She calls to him
Hey boy. Party with us.
Boy says
Gotta babysit my bro. Party at Somewhere Somewhere tomorrow night. Come on by. Bring your girls.
Somewhere Somewhere? We’ll be there, sexy.

And they pass in the night.

I chuckle at the scene over my sandwich. In my head they meet again tomorrow night. In my head they wake up hung over on his mattress on the floor and begin to spend no small amount of time together and then they split dramatically over some misunderstanding but get back together and then they graduate and get married and buy a house and grow synchronizedly fatter at the same slow steady rate and have bright little children that play soccer and do well in the science fair and then their kid comes back to this same corner in nineteen years and catcalls the next generation. And again and again, unto Infinity. And it’s inevitable but I hope at least the goddam Fast Food Sandwich Franchise isn’t the only late night eats still. Please let there be real diners again by then. The rest, the rest I can stomach.

And I wake from feeling superior but they are long gone and the street is quiet and I’m the creep sitting alone on the curb at three in the morning eating a sandwich by himself. And really you should never mock anybody that’s having more fun than you are. But it’s hard. It’s hard and I don’t know quite why.

I can’t sleep in the alley. Ground’s too hard and I’m too soft. Only guy I know in town is Rasmussen’s Brother. Haven’t seen him since high school. I’ve got his number in my little address book so I call him in the middle of the night after not seeing him in three years and ask if I can sleep on his couch. And he says yes without even hesitating. The world’s just stock full of good souls. He picks me up on my curb and brings me back to his place. And I woke this morning next state over rolled in a Blue Tarp and I go to bed this evening on a soft couch, complete with a fresh sheet his girlfriend lays out for me on top of the cushions. Because Inertia is a Myth. Each day we awake from a state of Rest, with all the directions of the winds laid out before us, never knowing all the different places we might finally lay our heads again when the time comes.

Click Here to read the next chapter in the Gap Decade Chronicles: #6.3: Inmate Louis and the Gay Nineties

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