Out of the brush in the West Texas desert he came; bruised, beaten, and nearly hairless. Tattered clothes, worn blood-and-honey boots, a black bandana tied around his misshapen head.
On Route 72, a blue and white Chevy pick-up swerves to avoid a collision in the middle of the freeway. The truck screeches, swerving left then right before straightening out and popping into reverse. White lights come on, and the angry motorist rolls backward to face the tattered man. A filthy window ravaged by the Texas dust rolls down with a dull creak.
“The fuck are you going?” yells an older man with a graying beard. He is alone.
“You speak English? The fuck did you do with your clothes, boy?” The bearded man grips the steering wheel and stares into the tattered man’s eyes.
The tattered man drives the Chevy Silverado into Dickens, Texas as the Sun hangs high above the desert. Tumbleweeds roll along the road by the dozen. Occasionally the tattered man stops to let them pass. The smell of the bearded man has evolved from savory sweet blood to a nearly unbearable sour stink—the distinct stench of death. He cracks the two windows an inch to vent out the smell. The dust begins to settle, and he feels the cool WestTexas wind blow into the truck, filling his nostrils with untarnished air.
The tattered man pulls over into a Valero and fills up a quarter tank of regular unleaded using money from the bearded man’s wallet. He covers the man with a blue tarpaulin found under the seat. The tattered man discards his own wallet inside a pebble trash can near the gas pump and walks into the convenience store to pay the $16.75. He notices a man standing in line, so he decides to get a six pack and some snacks for the road. He picks out a bag of sunflower seeds, a bag of trail mix, and makes his way to the drink aisle. He hears the other customer exit the store with the sound of a bell.
“Where the fuck is the beer?” he shouts at the old man sitting behind the counter.
“What?” the old man shouts back, pulling something out of his ear with the little finger of his left hand.
“Beer!” he yells back, motioning his left arm in a broad, sweeping gesture. “What’s this shit?”
“Dry county,” the old man snaps back in his deep, frog-like voice.
“Get the fuck out.”
“You lookin for booze it’s Ames County yer lookin for. Fifteen miles west on 72. Caint miss it.”
The tattered man groans and lays the snacks on the counter. “How much?”
The tattered man lays out four, crisp fives, Honest Abe staring peering up at him with eight piercing eyes.
The truck bumps and swerves along the road. Anything but a smooth ride. Sunflowers and trail mix fly out of his hands, littering the filthy floor of the cab with raisins and seeds covered in spittle.
“Mother fucker!” the tattered man yells back at the bearded man’s body. It smells like a strong cheese. The blood has congealed, and the man has gone stiff as a board.
The odometer is broken, but the truck has at least two hundred thousand based on how it drives. No telling when the oil was last changed. Every stop and start is filled with screeches and grinds. He has never been handy; that had always been his brother’s business. But that was all before the war. None of that mattered now.
The tattered man rolls down the cracked glass and spits a loogie out the window. The wind blows it back into the truck and it splatters against the side of the door.
“Mother fucker!” he shouts, angrily pounding and yanking the steering wheel with both hands. The truck swerves in and out of the lane.
The tattered man walks into that donut shop accidentally. It was the only food open at 6 am. The Greyhound driver taking him to El Paso chose it as the lone pit stop along the way. The contents of the bus poured out through the two doors and into a single file line. A haggard oriental couple stood behind the counter. The tattered man stood among the crowd, salivating at the thought of food. The couple in front of him talked about the police along 72. ‘Hawks’ they called them. El Paso was several hours away. When the tattered man reaches the front of the line, he places his order. It is too much. The gooks behind the counter are unprepared.
“No have that!” the man shouts at him, waving him to move out of line, “Come back tomorrow.”
“Kolache. You aint got none?”
“Five,” the man says, holding up one of his hands. His hands are calloused and worn, with hundreds of creases lining the leathery palm.
“Five kolaches? That’s it?” It had been hours since he had eaten; hours since he had abandoned the Chevy on the side of the highway and walked to the bus stop.
“Yes, five. We run out. Make more tomorrow morning.”
The tattered man lays down four wrinkled one-dollar bills. “Gimme what you got.”
The other fuckoffs and misfits purchased bear claws, eclairs, and jelly-filled donuts. The tattered man stood in the corner watching them out of the corner of his eye, looking out the window panes, sipping on almost undrinkable coffee out of a styrofoam cup. The bus departs shortly after.
The tattered man climbs aboard and sits seven rows back, resting his sunburned head against the window. He reaches behind his head and undoes the black bandana. The filthy glass feels cool against his scorched skin. The tattered man reaches up and rubs a hand across his head, feeling the lumps and nicks where he’d hit his head and cut himself shaving through the years. He had never been a handsome man, even in his youth. Too many fights to count did not help.
The bus stops abruptly, sending everyone forward in their seats. The tattered man hits his head on the leather seat in front of him, jolting awake. He instinctively puts his fists in front of his face. He curses and spits on the ground, earning the attention of those seated around him. He hears a woman’s voice a few rows behind.
“Get off the bus, you pig!”
The tattered man rises in his seat and turns around, looking for the source.
“The fuck you say to me, bitch? Who said that?” the tattered man roars at the thirteen rows behind him, about thirty people. The faces look down, many feigning sleep. Some faint from genuine terror. The bus driver looks into his rearview mirror and gulps nervously from his thermos of coffee. The West Texas desert spans out ahead like a burnt orange sea, each tumbleweed scattered along Route 72 like buoys. The bus driver continues to drive as the tattered man angrily storms down the aisle, yanking women out of their seats by their hair. He searches for a scream to match the voice.
“Who fucking said shit?” the tattered man bellows to everyone, showering many with spit. He pulls out his Bowie knife and flashes it in front of a big-breasted brunette.
“You say something, cunt?”
“N-no, s-sir,” she manages to squeak out, her voice compromised by a stammer. He grabs her by the nape of the neck and holds the Bowie to her throat.
“Tell me who said it or I’ll kill you right here, cunt.”
The woman starts to cry. The blade is sharp, and she feels the serrated teeth against her esophagus. She nervously lifts her arm and points an index finger across the aisle.
“Her! Her! Please let me go! Please, God, please let me go!”
The tattered man releases her neck and grabs her by the wrist. He drags her down the aisle, pulling her along like an obedient horse.
He looks around menacingly at every woman. Fear in their eyes, but none showing regret or remorse.
“Her?” the tattered man asks, pointing his Bowie knife in the direction of a middle-aged woman wearing a straw sunhat. The woman stares into the tattered man’s eyes, they are a crystal blue that reminds him of Hawai’i—of Samoa—and the war.
The tattered man remembers the bombs and the fires, raining from the sky. Death in the air and in the water. The tattered man thinks back to his brother before jamming the knife up to its handle in the woman’s neck. Blood spills out over her turquoise-and-white summer dress—droplets speckling her sunhat. She does not scream. Her last sound is a faint gurgle. And then death engulfs her.
The bus screeches to a halt and the bus driver throws open the doors. The obese man makes a break for it, moving surprisingly gracefully for a man his weight. Many of the passengers in the front of the bus scream and run for terror through the open door. Out into the desert. No one in the back of the bus dares move. The tattered man guards the exit; there is no escape except to cross him.
To be continued…