Not more than a few minutes down the highway, where it rounded the back side of the butte, there was a man standing on the side of the road, waving somewhat frantically, with a bag at his feet. As Keith drew nearer to the man, he came into focus, and he slowed down to consider picking him up. He appeared to be one of the drifters who regularly made their way through town, usually escaping old lives but not really searching for new ones. Drifting as they say. Unshaven, but not quite a beard, tattered jeans, work coat, rough boots, long thin hair. The uniform of a man ready to either work or just pass through town.
Tall and skinny, with a head that looked more like a skull than a face, more bone than flesh, the hard jaw and cheeks jutting against the inside of his skin. His dark eyes fixed deep within their sockets, and the forehead running high. His thin hair was pulled tightly back into a pony tail emphasizing the peak of his receding hairline.
Where Keith was raised, in a suburb just outside of Detroit, it would have been very much out of the ordinary to do anything other than ignore this man, or perhaps even call the police if he was standing outside your house. But out here, on this strip of road, at this junction of the world in the midst of a mountain range, it was far from unusual that such a man as this, a disheveled stranger, would be standing at the side of the road gesturing drivers to stop their cars, let him in, and move him on up the road.
Keith turned down the music, slowed the car, and veered over onto the gravel shoulder engulfing the man in a cloud of dust. The man walked at a brisk, awkward pace toward the red car. He was limping. Keith reached to unlock the back door.
“Hey, hop in,” he hollered out the open window.
The man opened the door and threw a large duffle bag into the back seat. It was a worn-out green canvas bag, which was just like an old bag that Keith’s father had borrowed from a friend who flew helicopters in the Viet Nam war. His dad never gave it back. Keith always wondered why his dad failed to return that relic to its owner, who, in truth, was probably perfectly happy to rid himself of such baggage.
The man slammed the back door, opened the front door, and before he even got in, the stench of stale cigarette smoke, liquor, and a very strong metallic odor preceded him.
Keith immediately regretted his decision to stop and thought of pulling away – but he had his bag in the back seat and the man was climbing in the car.
“Thanks for stopp’in.”
“No problem, where you ‘goin?”
“Wherever the hell you’re ‘goin, I don’t care, get the hell ‘outa this shithole, take me as far away as you can,” he said as he motioned to the back seat, “I see you got a full pack in the back, you ‘goin on up hik’in in the park or some shit?” he asked, and then laughed, like they were sharing some kind of joke known only to them.
Before Keith could answer, the man’s nervous laughing intensified. It was a crazy sort of laugh. Not quite sinister, but definitely not what one might describe as a happy fun-loving laugh.
Keith did not speak.
“Man, however far up the road you’re ‘goin, that’ll be just fine by me, I don’t care, just get me out of this shithole, I won’t be no bother to you, you’re just a kid, what the hell you do’in out here? You live out here all alone, or you got an old lady or something? Ain’t nobody needs an old lady, I’ll tell you that much, goddammit, I’ll tell you that.”
“Yeah, I live back down the road, off the creek by the bridge, it’s pretty nice down there, I moved there a while back and work over in,” Keith stopped talking midsentence.
“Right down at the bottom of the butte there? That butte where you picked me up? That’s where you live?”
“Yeah, I’m the only one there, I like it. It’s really nice, can fish right out my back door, in Cache Creek,” Keith said.
“You didn’t see noth’in there this morning didja?”
“Like what? Na, I didn’t even see the sheep that usually wander around up there.”
“Nothing, huh?” The man asked skeptically. “Betcha it’s real nice down there. I bet. Never been up on that damn butte there, I was just walk’in by, so I wouldn’t know, anyway. But yeah, I see sheep ‘an shit wander’in round up there. You know what, though, I’m a city man, I can’t stand this woodsy mountain bullshit, ain’t noth’in ‘gainst it, if you like it, but ain’t nuth’in to do, not the kinda action I like. I can’t take it no more. The work sucks. My boss sucked. Said I was steal’in from him, I don’t know what the hell he was talkin’ ‘bout.”
The man put his head into his hand and rubbed it hard, and then went into a rant about how his boss did him wrong. He should have given his boss a beating for what he said about him. Then he moved onto other subjects, like the government and taxes, land use and mineral rights, some fortune he didn’t make, and then ranting for about a half hour about his “old lady and her step kid.” He sure didn’t like them.
Keith watched the man out of the corner of his eye as he drove. The muscles in his neck twitched. At one point, the man turned the rearview mirror toward him so that he could see behind the car from his position in the passenger seat.
Keith casually reached down to his left side to feel whether his hunting knife was in the door pocket, where he usually kept it because it was uncomfortable on his belt while he drove. It was the knife his dad had given him before he left home. Unfortunately, though, the knife was not there. Maybe it was in the day pack. In his sleep deprived state, he could not remember.
The man kept on talking. His voice just motored on, and on, droning, like the engine of the car. This and that. That and this. Whatever came into this man’s mind spewed forth, murdering the silence that would have allowed Keith to gather his senses and comprehend his next steps.
“You got an old lady? Naah you don’t, what am I think’in? You’re just a kid, how old are you anyway?”
“Damn!”He exclaimed,“You don’t know shit,” the man said as he frantically looked in the rearview mirror over and over, like he was scared someone was following him.
“Lemme tell you something, you want to know something?”
Not waiting for the answer to his question, he proceeded.
“You don’t want no old lady. Never take one. I mean it, believe me, I know, they ain’t noth’in but problems. Nag nag nag nag nag. And guess what?”
Keith looked off into the distance and said nothing.
“You know what?”
“You know who she care about? Nobody. Not me. Nobody but her. I’m tell’in you, you know what I’m say’in?”
The man settled back in his seat.
“Look, I’m not going that much further up the road, so how about I drop you off?”
“Yeah, I was a damn fool. That shit’s on me, for moving in with her and that brat of hers. I shoulda known. That boy. He was ‘bout your age. That boy, though. He wasn’t like you, he never listened. You know how it is? You know what I’m say’in?”
“Sure, yeah,” replied Keith.
The feeling of imminent, unavoidable harm poured into him, like one of those dreams that compelled him to avoid sleep. He could not make it stop. He was running. His legs were pumping hard. But he was not going anywhere. Something was coming. It was in motion, and he had little control over it. The harder he pushed and pulled his legs, the slower he moved. He could not see what was behind him. It was shrouded in darkness. But it was coming. He knew that much.
“So, where the hell you ‘goin, Keith?”
“Not far now, how’d you know my name?”
The man laughed. “I saw it on your pack,” pausing, then spelling it out, “K-E-I-T-H, Keith, you know I can read, Keith, you think I’m a dumb ass, you think I’m a retard?”
“No, come on man, I didn’t think you couldn’t read.”
“I’m just fuck’in with you. Lighten up. Chill out. Redder, Steve, Steve Redder.”
“That’s my name, you know, my real name. But, a lot of people call me Marlboro.”
“Cause I smoke ‘em, and the pack’s red, you know, Marlboro Reds, like my name. That’s what they call ‘em and that’s kinda what they call me, sometimes. Started out Redman, and at work one time some dude on a cigarette break called me Marlboro Redder, and it got shortened to Marlboro, you know what I’m say’in? I don’t give a fuck what nobody calls me.”
“You didn’t think that was on my birth certificate did you,” he said, laughing.
“No, I didn’t think that.”
“Speak’in of which, Keith, why don’t you gimme one of them you got there in your pocket,” Steve exclaimed and laughed as he leaned over and took the cigarette pack out of Keith’s shirt pocket and helped himself.
Keith did not laugh. They had been on the road for about an hour, he was at least another hour from his destination, and now he had this drifter reaching into his pocket and taking his cigarettes.
Steve removed a cigarette from the pack and placed it between his dried out lips. As Steve lit the cigarette, Keith noticed, for the first time, that his right hand was wrapped tightly in a bloody bandage.
Keith lit up his last cigarette for himself.
“What did you do to your hand?” Keith asked.
“Noth’in really. You know how it is? Things get a little crazy. Old lady came at me with a knife. You know what I’m say’in?”
Keith laughed nervously.
“You think that’s funny?” Steve said, with irritation. “She came at me with a knife! Things get crazy sometimes, you know how it is?”
“Yeah, sure, I know how it is. So you thought you’d get out of town?”
“Wouldn’t you? Hell yeah, I get out of town. She’d turn that shit on me. And guess who goes down? ‘Ole Steve, Steve Redder. Been down that road before, and ain’t goin’ down it again, you know what I’m say’in?”
“So what’d you do?”
Steve looked out the window silently for at least a minute.
“Got crazy? That’s what happened. Real crazy. My old lady and her boy, that boy, that boy he never got no discipline, he just do whatever he want, not like when I was a kid, you know what I’m say’in, not like you, Keith. You get it. You wouldn’ta liked that little son of a bitch if you knew him, you know what I’m say’in, and I mean that.”
“Yeah, right,” Keith mumbled.
“So I come home from work, yeah, bust my ass all day, mak’in honest pay and all that shit, I gotta deal with my boss, ‘goin at me ‘bout missing tools, and, man, I don’t know what the hell else. I don’t even listen to him no more. He lost his shit on me cause I was whistl’in that boy named Sue song, you know what I’m say’in, well it turns out his name was Kelly or some shit so he took it all personally, I’m just like, I like the song broh, so take it easy. That guy, I tell you, I don’t know what the hell he’s talk’in about, and he’s go’in after me, so I’m say, ‘I’m outa here,’ I’m done with all this shit, and I went home.
“So I went home early. She wasn’t expecting my ass back in that house for 4 more hours, and you don’t wanna know what I found goin’ on in there. My house. My house, you know what I’m say’in?”
Steve checked the rear-view mirror again. The sun was rising well above the mountain range now, and the road was climbing and falling with the changing elevations. The windows were down. Traffic on the road was starting to thicken, and the tourists travelling into the park, which Keith usually felt disrupted his solitude, now gave him a sense of comfort.
“Broh, let me put it to you this way, what I saw goin’ on there I can’t even tell you.” Steve punched the dashboard. Hard enough to loosen a couple of the tape cassettes that were wedged in its crevices.