Monthly Archives: October 2019
Today I offer a scary story, to help you get into a Halloween mood. This is Story #7, entitled The Empty Purse, from my book, Go West or Go Weird.
I always carry a few gallons of water in my car. That way if my car ever breaks down in this convection oven I live in, that we call a desert, I can survive for a few hours before my brain boils like an egg, and my body turns into a slab of beef jerky.
I’m surprised at how few people take such lifesaving precautions. And it seems to happen a few times a year, in our neck of the Mojave, where a driver gets stuck in the middle of nowhere, and wanders away in search of cool, clear water.
It can take months for search and recovery to find their bodies, if they ever are found. So I wrote this modern Western as a warning.
But I also wrote it to win a prize. This is the only short story I have ever written for a contest. Contestants were required by Writer’s Indigestion magazine, to pen a story about a woman who empties out all the contents of her purse.
My submission did not win first place.
The winning entry was a parable about a woman who overturns her purse to find something helpful for some poor bastard in need. And I understand why it won. What a unique idea. Who would have thought about actually overturning a purse to empty it out?
My story came in 3,919th place. Which ain’t bad for a nationwide contest, don’t you think? So I thought its level of appeal would make it fit right into this book.
The Empty Purse
Her car bucked and banged over the dirt road. Rumbled over washboards. Swished through sand. Sank through sand. Slowed. Stopped.
Too much sand.
A back and forth. Wheels spinning. Sand spraying. Sinking deeper. No go.
Mojave desert all around . . . nearest paved road about seven miles away, as the raven flies. She wiped sweat from her forehead with a slightly trembling finger.
She had always heard that the best thing to do in a situation like this is to stay put. Sooner or later someone would come looking. Her best chance of being found was to remain with the car and not wander away.
But that highway back there. If only she could make it back. There were cars she could flag down. Out here . . . who knew how often any car made it this far. There were no tire tracks in the sand in front of her. And hers were the only tire tracks behind her.
That pavement would be more than 10 miles away if she walked back using the meandering dirt road. Just not enough water. Footwear was okay—her sneakers could do it. Legs had the strength. But the water probably would not hold out.
Now, cross-country—only maybe seven miles. But kind of rough country. She squinted her eyes northeast, using her hand as a visor. Looked walkable enough. Seemed like it was all downslope, and she could bypass around the boulder-stewn inselbergs. And no problem crossing those dry washes. After all, they were dry. Unfortunately.
She had a map. And she had a pretty good idea where she was, on the map. She had a half-drank one-liter bottle of water from the Circle K store. A Three Musketeers bar was melting in her purse.
And yes, her purse!
Lots of small items in the purse! The idea smoked in her head, then caught fire.
She left a note on the dash, and at ten o’clock in the morning, headed out. About a hundred feet away she stopped in a clearing where all the winter’s cheatgrass had wilted away. She took a shiny pair of fingernail clippers from her purse and placed them on top of a white quartz stone.
And on she hiked.
Every hundred feet or so she extracted another item from her purse and posed it on top of a rock, or on bare ground. Conspicuously. In open areas between the creosote bushes or cholla or bunched up galleta grass. Any clear spot where someone searching for her could notice it from a distance, and follow her trail.
A brown hiking boot came down beside a lipstick tube of brass. A man knelt and lifted it. Wiped the dusty surface off on his jeans and examined it. Clicked his radio and announced, “Found lipstick. Let’s keep heading northeast.”
The search party was arrayed like a comb. A turkey vulture wobbled its wings overhead and watched as the figures moved in one general direction, during the hottest part of the day.
But late in the afternoon they broke formation. Each of the figures seemed to take on independent movement. One ambled about here, while another headed straight out there, and another veered off in the opposite direction. It was as if they’d lost their direction, and didn’t know which way to travel next.
One of the figures stopped beside a yucca and lingered. Then one by one the other figures gravitated to the yucca.
They congregated and studied a black object hanging by a black strap on a green blade of the Spanish Dagger. They muttered among themselves, until one of the men slid the black object up and off the blade.
A mile away, a turkey vulture plunged its beak between two ribs, prying, twisting, widening the gap that barred access to the dead, but tasty internal organs within.
The man examined the black object. It was a purse. He pried the leather edges of the purse apart and peered inside.
It was empty.
This is the conclusion to Calamity In A Cornfield, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. Click this link for Part 1.
Calamity In A Cornfield (Conclusion)
I walked back to the farmhouse as the band attacked again. There were long screeching sounds punctuated by howls, thumps, and mind-altering rhythms. Sounded to me like I’d died and finally gone to the place those preachers always said I was headed for. I looked over at the corn, and it seemed as if the stalks were slowly beginning to droop over and wither away.
Sitting in my farmhouse, with the muffled noise of the heavy metal band banging at my windows, I tried to think. For a few hours nothing came to me. Then about an hour after they’d packed up and left for the day, the silence enabled my brain to work again. And I got an idea. An idea that was so simple it was stupendous. An idea I was sure would succeed.
Early next morning I dragged some sprinkling equipment over near the property line. The same stuff that I use to wash my cornstalks when the leaves get too dusty. Dusty leaves are bad for photosympathesis, you know. ‘Sall there in a book I read once.
Anyhows, I hooked it all up and then waited like an anxious general for the day’s battle to begin. But I was off in hiding, back behind the water lines in a stand of corn.
My violinist showed up promptly at 7:00. I gave him my battle instructions. He was to begin his concert of whatever-it-would-be standing over behind the sprinkler equipment. Then as soon as the enemy showed up—those damned demons of demented mayhem—and started playing their screeching, scritching, hissing wailing that they called music, he was to quickly retreat as far away from the sprinkler equipment as possible.
My violinist smiled slowly, and nodded. He understood. Yes he knew what I was going to do. He realized exactly. He told me that today he was going to perform Handel’s Water Music. Felt that it would be appropriate. I did too.
He began his concert, and the sweet soothing notes that emerged from his violin seemed to have a curative, restorative effect on my battered corn. The corn seemed to be uplifting its leaves, and the whole scene began to look greener and greener and greener.
Then about five minutes later a van with naked ladies in chains painted on its sides, pulled up in the distance, and a group of hairy-headed men jumped out. They pointed at the violin player and began hauling equipment out of the van. I snickered softly.
They quickly dragged the large speakers, the amplifiers, the electric guitars, and the long extension cords out to the property line, and set them directly opposite from my violin player.
My stringed instrumentarian stood his ground.
I waited, hidden in a secret stand of corn.
They were shoutin’ and cussin’ and grinnin’ and spittin’. You never seen such varmints-on-two-legs before. They were greasy-headed, with hair down past their shoulders, wearin’ old dirty tank tops with weird designs on ’em. Designs like giant spiders killing people with razor blades, eagles with swastikas, sharks eating musical instruments, and one tank top that had a guy in a straight-jacket who was barfing up a big old wad of money. I tell you, these guys weren’t much in the way of musicians, but they’d of made damned good scarecrows.
My violinist kept playing that Water Music.
And I kept waiting.
They must’ve had about 1600 feet of extension cord leading from their electronical musical contraptions over to Rutherford’s farmhouse. They finally got it all hooked up and got ready to play.
As my violin player hit an especially high, sweet and uplifting note, they bombed him suddenly with a roaring squelch and riff of satanic squealing. Then they peppered him with an atrocity of mutilating synthesizer tones, and strafed him with an electronic whumff that came from God-knows-what, traveling down a long line of speakers, and back and forth again several times.
My violin player recovered from his shock and remembered my instructions. He took off and ran for the opposite side of the cornfield. The band leader—Rutherford’s nephew—the one who held his pants up with a motorcycle chain—screamed in satanic silly delight when he saw this.
But I was even more delighted. ‘Cause just then I reached for the water valve and turned it on full force.
Well, first they just kind of stood there in disbelief, and got themselves soaked. But when that water began to seep into their electronic equipment, a few things began to snap, crackle, and pop. And then you never seen such a bunch of fools trying to pull their electric guitars from around their necks so fast. Comical it was. I tell you, I was rolling down the corn rows.
Their guitars would touch their bodies and shock the shit out of them. So they’d grab ’em, and their hands would get shocked. So they started dancing all around with their necks craned over, trying to make those damned guitar straps fall over their heads.
Yessir, this was sure fun to watch. But it wasn’t the best of it. What happened next was the cream of the crop. I would have paid to see this, but didn’t have to, since I was right there causing it all. Seems like Rutherford’s nephew’s guitar couldn’t take the strain. It started to spit out all these sparks, and then it exploded and caught fire.
Why, he just went plumb crazy when this happened. He started to scream like a coyote in mating season. He started yap-yapping and half-howling. Then he grabbed his guitar by the neck and whipped it off his body. I could tell he was getting shocked, by the way his body kept convulsing, but he held on tight to the guitar. And with eyes ablaze, and spittin’ and screamin’, he spun around and around in circles, then let loose of the guitar and sent it flying.
It landed in a cloud of smoke and fire right at the edge of Rutherford Abercrombie’s corn crop.
I ought to tell you now, that when a cornfield catches fire it burns up like a toothpick in a torchlight. It just goes ablaze in seconds, and before you know it nothing’s left but ashes and corn flakes.
That’s exactly what happened to Rutherford Abercrombie’s cornfield. That flaming guitar caught the cornfield on fire, and before you knew it—poof!—it was wiped out. And so was Rutherford, who stood to lose a lot of money.
Well, war is hell. Especially on the loser. But I was doing pretty damned good myself. Once the ambulances had taken away the band members, the fire department had poured their last drops of water on the ashes, and the sheriff had stopped knocking on my front door, I was able to sneak out of my stand of corn where I was hiding.
As I walked back to my farmhouse, a proud, happy, and triumphant general, my violin player emerged from his hiding place, too. He lifted his violin toward me and I nodded my head. He then put the violin under his chin and began performing again. And Water Music never sounded better to an old country boy like myself.
But I preferred my country music, so I went on inside and turned on the radio just in time to catch a George Strait tune.
But I could almost feel what was happening to my cornstalks outside. Their ears were growing bigger and bigger as they listened to the soothing classical music. I could feel that. And their leaves were growing greener and greener. I could feel that too. But what I could mostly feel were dollar signs.
Eat your heart out, Rutherford Abercrombie, for this year I was having a bumper crop.
We’re now at Story #6, entitled Calamity In A Cornfield, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. Today’s installment is Part 1 of 2.
We humans love to nitpick at each other, and stir up controversy. And all over nothing, most of the time. One of the “nothing” issues we often fight about is music choice.
When I was a teenager I got into rock ‘n roll. But I had a stepfather who disapproved, and who would mock the tunes I rocked to. He liked putting people down, so you’d better believe he seized upon my choice of music for his uninvited criticisms.
But then I got into country music. And since he was a redneck, he had to give up on that line of critique. Nonetheless, others criticized. And that’s because they thought I was a redneck, too.
So I just did what any old redneck is expected to do, when criticized. I doubled down. I bought a cowboy hat, blue jeans, and pair of boots. And I started a career as a country music deejay.
But my tastes changed again. When I hit my late-20’s I discovered classical music. The vibes of the symphony orchestra. By this time I was in the military. I shared a barracks dorm with a guy who liked to judge people based on their choice of music. And when he’d see me listening to Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky, or Rachmaninoff, he’d just shake his head, cluck his tongue, and warn me that I was going to grow bugs in my ears if I kept listening to that stuff.
But I kept listening anyway, and bugs never did grow in my ears. I know. I checked.
Of all the musical genres, it seems classical takes the most heat from critics. Those who are fans of any other kind of music, seem to regard the classics with disdain. And they seem amused and befuddled when they encounter ordinary folks who are fans of this genre. They assume that classical music is only for octogenarians and white shoe society types.
And yet I submit to you that classical music serves many useful functions that we all enjoy. For instance, it provides the juice that makes our elevators go up and down. It enhances the effects of Novocaine, at the dentist’s office. And it cues our mood when watching movies, so that we know which emotion to feel. Consider how sterile and bland the cinema would be, without classical music.
And there’s one other thing. Classical music grows houseplants. Scientific study has proven that plants grow better when vibrating to concertos.
And that’s what inspired me to write this modern Western (or perhaps, Midwestern) about music, criticism, and conflict over what we listen to. So put on your overalls and join me in my cornfield. This is a tale where I imagine I’m a redneck farmer who has discovered the agricultural advantages of classical music.
Calamity In A Cornfield (Beginning)
I hired a violin player for my cornfield. I was tired of fertilizers, tired of so-called “miracle” seeds, and tired of hearing my neighbor, Rutherford Abercrombie, brag about how his corn crops were always riper, fuller, and much more abundant than mine.
Then I read a magazine article about how plants exposed to classical music, in a laboratory experiment, grew greener, stronger and taller than similar vegetation exposed to nothing but silence. I threw away my fertilizer bags. I tossed the pesticide. And I called the Omaha Musicians Guild and asked for an out-of-work violin player. I figured live music was more natural, and would have a better effect than something coming out of a speaker.
Two days later my inch-high stands of corn played audience to concertos in B-Minor, Fifths and Sixths of Beethoven, and other compositions from guys like Bach and Obendorf. Not being a fan of classical music myself, I closed all the windows of my farmhouse and turned on the country on my radio.
But my corn loved it. Every day for an hour it bathed in resplendent tunes of Old Europe. And it feathered more leaves. It shot out stalks. It pierced the air, pushing for the sky. It was as if each corn stalk was trying to get higher than the other so it could better enjoy the daily aria of concerto music. The violinist sang with his bow. And as the corn grew with the music, it seemed to crackle with applause.
One day, while Faith Hill sang on the radio, Chopin was outside fertilizing the crops. And a staccato drumroll reverberated on my front door. It was Rutherford Abercrombie. He was nervous. He was upset. He was angry. He demanded that I stop that infernal violin music outside. He claimed that it bothered him. Interfered with his Rascal Flatts when he was up in his tractor.
“Bull!” I told him. I said my music was meant for corn, not people. And since the cab of his tractor was one of them environmentally controlled, sealed up, air-conditioned, dehumidified contraptions, he could barely hear a single wailing string with the wind going in his direction.
But I knew Abercrombie didn’t mind the music. Rutherford Abercrombie was a highly competitive man. The envious type. He knew what I was doing. And he knew I was succeeding too, at growing a better corn crop than him. And he didn’t like that. Didn’t say so, but he did storm out of my house tossing a threat over his shoulder about how two could play at my game of “noise pollution.”
The next day he carried his threat out. My dignified, $90-dollar-a-day corn entertainer strutted into the field. He arched his back. He gripped the violin with his chin. He poised the bow straight up into the air. Then, closing his eyes, he daintily lowered the bow and applied it to the strings. The instant the very first feathery soft note lifted from the delicate wood frame and sought out the attentive ears of my five-hundred-acre audience, a heavy thud smashed the reverie.
Then another thud. Then a skull-piercing scream. It was Abercrombie. He had lined up large speakers and amplifiers along the edge of his farm, facing my jungle of bumper crop. And behind the speakers and amplifiers was a rock ‘n roll band. Heavy metal to be exact. And while my feeble violinist chortled out “Swan Lake,” they belted him hard with a tune that could have been called “The Mad, Skreeking Cat Fight From Hell.”
The violinist couldn’t take it. I had to give him earplugs to continue on. But the corn was doing worse, and there was no way I could plug those ears. Already it seemed the leaves were turning brown along the edges. Finally the heavy metalists took an intermission and I stole upon the silent scene to call a truce.
Talking to the band leader, who had a scar running across his forehead and down a cheek, and whose chest was as thin as a pencil, and who was wearing greasy Levis held up by a motorcycle chain, I got to the bottom of the story. It seemed he was having no luck in finding a place to rehearse. Until his generous Uncle Rutherford offered him the use of the farm. As long, of course, as the speakers faced away into my cornfield, and the band played as loudly as possible. Especially during the violin concertos.
That damned Rutherford Abercrombie! What a low-down, slimy salamander, son-of-a-skunk puddle of horse piss he was. And he was beating me! There was no way in hell I could stop his war of noise pollution. At least nothing I could think of at the moment.
End of Part 1. Come on back tomorrow for Part 2, and the conclusion to this tall tale.
This is the conclusion to Bus Ride, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. Click this link for Part 1.
Bus Ride (Conclusion)
Past the Oklahoma Ozarks, the sleek Greyhound raced. John, Santino, and Sal got into a penny-ante poker game at the back of the bus. John kept at it with his fulsome praise of the copper mining industry, while Santino seemed bored and kept trying to change the subject. Sal felt a little annoyed with Santino about this, but minded his manners.
Then Santino lost a big pot to John and had to stop playing. Sal felt guilty pleasure at Santino’s misfortune, but did his best to keep his glee to himself.
A long stop at Oklahoma City invited a stroll in the summer morning heat. Santino guided the conversation to food, and how hungry he felt. John bought him a hot dog from a sidewalk vendor, then steered the talk back to the glory of copper.
An hour later, the motorcoach flew further down the highway.
Sal felt intrigued by the long cracks in the earth, breaking through the Llano Estacado of the Texas panhandle. And of course Lash, a Texas native, had plenty of tales to tell about his supposed exploits in Amarillo.
By this time the two were great friends, and Sal drank in every word uttered by this cowboy, like a longhorn steer at a watering hole. But the subject of copper mining no longer came up much, because it already seemed like a given that Sal was sold on the prospect. Besides, Santino had done a fairly good job of discouraging any further talk on the matter. All Lash did was occasionally check to make sure Sal was still interested.
Sheet lightning washed over the long bus as it motored into Tucumcari. “Ya see,” Lash drawled, “Indian legend has it that many years ago there lived two great chiefs, named Tucum and Cari. They fought a great battle here, and from then on lightning strikes became very common on this plain. This town gets more lightning strikes than anywhere else in the world.”
This was all pure bullshit, but it sounded great to Sal. He believed it. He believed anything his Texan friend told him. But he barely heard John, because he was looking forward with so much excitement to his new life that was about to unfold, as a New Mexican copper miner.
Around midnight, air brakes hissed the Greyhound to a long stop at a terminal in the downtown Albuquerque bus station. Everyone had to get out for a spell to allow for cleaning. But also this was Lash’s destination. And Sal’s too now, it would seem. Sal stuck beside his Texan friend, while Santino tagged along to say his goodbyes.
John Lash called his brother, informed him of his arrival, and told him he had a friend with him who also needed to be picked up.
Santino moved into Sal’s view and suddenly, ever so briefly, transformed into a singular figure of abject fear. “Are you sure you want to do this, Sal?” he gasped.
The worry lines, the genuine concern that flashed on his face . . . it triggered a feeling like a kick in the gut. And suddenly Sal felt doubts.
Lash heard the question and spun around to face Sal, with an inquiring look.
“Uh, yeah, I, I, I don’t know. I think so.”
Lash’s eyes were gimlets, boring into his skull. “You mean to tell me you were all fired up all this time about working at the copper mine, and now you’re not sure? Come on!”
“No, I still want to do it. I think. But then I won’t go to college. My mom is expecting me tomorrow in San Diego. What do I tell her?”
“Hay-ell,” John drawled out. “You can call ‘mommy’ tomorrow and jist tell her. That way she won’t worry. Come on. Be a man. Be like a Texan.”
Calling her in the morning sounded kind of reassuring to Sal, but he still felt troubled. It’s funny how a person can feel very enthusiastic about a big decision until the time actually arrives to commit. Hesitation has a way of stealing its way into the soul of those who possess even a small fraction of wisdom. And even at his young age, Sal possessed a bit of wisdom. For wisdom is known to weave itself into the warp and weft of children who endure years of abuse.
It’s a good thing, this hesitation and wisdom. It can really save you sometimes.
They kicked it around some more, and then a half hour later a fourth man appeared in their midst. John Lash’s brother, George. George looked nothing like John. He had a dumpy figure, was slovenly dressed, and seemed about ten years older.
George looked Sal up and down. He glanced over to John with a fleetingly approving look. Then he sort of whined, “Oh, I don’t know . . . I guess he can come if you want.” He shrugged his shoulders and sighed, “He can sleep on the couch for awhile.” He acted as if this would be something of an imposition, but expressed a reluctant willingness to humor his brother.
The two Lashes directed hard gazes Sal’s way. Sal rolled his head up, down, then all around, trying to dodge eye contact and the pressure that goes with it. Then he caught Santino’s eyes, who stood out of view from the brothers, behind them. Santino dramatically shook his head side to side, while mouthing the word, “NO!”
Sal was young, but not so naive he couldn’t recognize the quality of Santino’s character. This Mexican was no nonsense. He hardly possessed a fraction of the excitement and charisma owned by John, but he did carry within him a somber grasp of reality, and resignation to the hard facts of life, that seemed to kind of elude the self-assured cowboy.
Sal didn’t like such resignation, because it was so unexciting. But his own life experience enabled him to connect with it. It was familiar. It was real. And it was something he knew he could count on.
It was enough. This unspoken “NO” from Santino was perhaps the most fortunate piece of advice Sal would ever receive. And Sal took it to heart.
“I think I’ll pass, John,” Sal murmured, feeling a little ashamed.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes!” with a little more emphasis. Sal hung his head but stood his ground, as a diesel engine purred in the background.
The bus was now boarding. It was time for a parting. They all shook hands and the Lash brothers sauntered out of the station.
Who knows what might have happened had this young naif gone with them? Perhaps you can imagine many hypotheticals. But here’s what we do know. Here’s what resulted from Sal’s decision:
Sal attended community college in southern California. After college he faltered in his career aspirations, as many young men do who’ve emerged from an abusive childhood. But he eventually found success, entered into a satisfying marriage, and retired in relative comfort.
As for John Lash, he and his brother were also successful. Over the next six years they succeeded at luring eight young men into their home. There they raped, tortured, and strangled them with ligatures.
They buried their bodies in an abandoned copper mine.
Santino hung near Sal all the way to San Bernardino. When the Greyhound stopped from time-to-time to allow its passengers to get off and find a place to dine, Santino followed him to various eateries and never left Sal’s side.
You see, Santino was penniless and very hungry, and Sal had a few bucks to spend. In Flagstaff, Sal bought him some burritos at Taco Bell. Barstow saw Sal treating Santino to a bag of chips from a vending machine.
Sal didn’t have much money, and felt annoyed with Santino’s mooching ways. Such annoyance is understandable, given Sal’s limited resources. But any annoyance would have quickly evaporated had he realized then, just who this man was that he was feeding.
For as it turned out, Santino was Sal’s guardian angel.
The only part of this tale that is fiction, is that I don’t really know what the hell John Lash and his brother were up to. They could have been genuine, and really wanted to help me get a job in a copper mine. But my older, wiser self feels very doubtful about that.
Maybe they were just planning to rob me of what little I had. Or maybe they were planning to traffic me into the world of male prostitution. Or perhaps drug smuggling. Who knows? I only know that I’m alive to tell this tale today. I did not fall prey. I’m one of the lucky ones.
Oh yeah, the other part that may not be true is Sal being a guardian angel. Maybe he was just a hungry moocher who saw me as a meal ticket he didn’t want to lose. Is there really such a thing as guardian angels? Who knows?
We’re now at Story #5, entitled Bus Ride, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. Today’s installment is Part 1 of 2.
This modern Western is mostly a true tale. I’ll point out the one part that isn’t true, later on. This story is about visions of Texas instilled into the heart of a California dreamer. I was that dreamer, though I wrote this autobiography in the third person, with a changed name.
I was a young man who had left southern California to spend my last school year in upstate New York. I went through a culture shock during my senior year of high school, having been born and raised in California, and not accustomed to east coast ways.
But the greatest shock came from my new stepmother, whom my father had just married. My stepfather was a giant asshole, and he and I didn’t get along. I thought for sure my dad could do a better job at picking a spouse than my mother had. So I traveled across country to live with these newlyweds, and escape the abuse from my stepfather.
But my dad’s new wife was an alcoholic. Just like my dad. And a mean alcoholic. Unlike my dad. In fact, she was even meaner and more abusive than my alcoholic stepfather.
So after I graduated high school, I forlornly decided to return to my mother’s house, put up with her asshole husband, and attend college in the state of my birth.
My dad felt disappointed, and wasn’t about to spend any money on a plane ticket. Instead he had my stepmom drop me off at the Greyhound bus station, with a one-way ticket back to where I came from.
And I was nearly devoured on that bus ride.
A ten-hour trip to Grand Central Station from Ticonderoga, New York, left me feeling tired and anxious. But then I met a helpful man. A smooth-talking Texan who called himself John Lash.
Lash had a slick tongue, cool eyes, and the quiet, patient instincts of a hunter. And I, the disaffected 18-year-old, returning from one dysfunctional home back to another, was the unsuspecting and vulnerable prey.
Let this tale serve as a cautionary lesson to young adult men and women. Especially to those who need a safe place to live, yet have never known home to be a refuge.
Bus Ride (Beginning)
Eighteen and a tough realization to swallow: Dad’s home was worse than Mom’s. Dad’s wife was more abusive than Mom’s husband. So he decided to jump from the fire and back into the frying pan.
At seventeen he left Mom’s house and flew clear across the country to live with Dad and his new bride. But his new stepmom didn’t like him. Didn’t want him. Besides, she was a crazy, mean drunk. So when he faced a choice between east and west, he opted for a college on the west coast.
She dropped him off at the bus station. So long, you wicked witch of the east, he muttered to himself as she sped away. Depressed, disappointed, and disillusioned, he boarded the Greyhound.
Grand Central Station. A crowded, confusing mess for a small town young man who needed to make his connection. He finally found the correct terminal in the hurly-burly ruck of this massive building in the heart of Manhattan. His bewildered eyes were like searchlights, exploring the proper way to go, while at the same time attracting attention.
“Need help?” he heard a gentle Texan drawl. There beside him hovered a tall lank man in a cowboy hat, about ten years older than him. “Howdy, I’m John. John Lash. You goin’ to Albuquerque, too?”
He took in the tall Texan, warily scanning him up and down. “No,” he replied coolly, and turned his attention to studying the transfer ticket in his hands.
“Ah, California. I can see that on your ticket. Well this is the right terminal. Gets confusing here, don’t it?”
The younger man glanced back up. “Yeah, it does.” He felt suspicious and cupped the ticket so this stranger’s prying eyes couldn’t read it anymore.
Lash laughed a little. “Hey, I’m just trying to help. Well if you need anymore help I’ll be standing over there,” he pointed.
What kind of prick am I? The thought sneaked into his head. That guy seems nice enough. He felt a little guilty. A few minutes later he made his way over and introduced himself. “I’m Sal, by the way.” They shook hands.
The Texan was a very present man. He listened attentively. He seemed relaxed and self-assured. He conveyed confidence and security. And he seemed ever ready to assist with any need. These were things this young man craved from the people he associated with, yet received so rarely.
Sal gradually relaxed his guard and fell into the confidence of the self-assured man with the cowboy hat.
The bus ride carried them through the Garden State, and across the Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. What an exciting time for this young man, who’s only prior crossing of the continent occurred at 30,000 feet. Now he was getting a ground’s-eye view of America the beautiful.
John Lash befriended him, and they spent many hours in the seat cushions, next to each other, sharing stories, swapping lies, and commenting on the passing scenery.
Lash claimed to be a Texas Aggie alumnus, and regaled him with tales of his A&M years, and the exploits of the Aggie’s famed football team, and all kinds of other stories about Texas.
Sal learned that Texas was the last Confederate state to surrender during the Civil War. And he learned that Texas had the best this, and the most that. And he learned these aggrandizing facts with interest, because John Lash had a charisma to him that made every word he uttered seem necessary to know, cool, and immutably correct.
Sal grew fascinated with Lash and the state he hailed from. And he began to wonder if Texas might be a good place to settle down and start a career. This was an important consideration for a fledgling like him, with his whole life ahead of him.
Just past a cup of coffee at Hubbard, Ohio he began to to voice this interest to John. The cowboy squinted two approving eyes at him, then lowered his voice and quickly promised, “We’ll talk about it later.”
He then stood up from his seat, swaggered up a few rows, and plunked down next to a pretty young lady who had just boarded at Hubbard. He sparked a conversation with her, and it seemed his charming, genteel ways won her over within minutes.
Sal felt instant jealousy. He was attracted to Lash. Not in a sexual way, for Sal liked pretty young ladies also. But in a comradely way. But now it appeared he had to share his new friend’s attentions with this muliebrity that had transfigured the bus.
Finally the nubile one disembarked a long eight hours later, at her destination in Indianapolis. Lash returned. Now, as promised, the cowboy discussed Texas as a place to live.
Great state, wonderful state, he advertised.
But, he pointed out, New Mexico was even better.
For the first time, he brought up copper mines. He was employed at a copper mine in New Mexico, he revealed. The work was hard, but not too hard, and it paid very well, according to him. Between Terre Haute and St. Louis, he spun yarns and otherwise expounded at length on his experiences in this occupation that he described as the best thing that had ever happened to him, making it seem magical to the ears of the young man beside him.
The bus stopped for awhile in Joplin, and they got out to stretch their legs and walk the town a bit. A Mexican man in his 30’s, named Santino, had joined them for occasional conversation, on the bus, and he accompanied the two on the town walk. Their trialogue mainly consisted of comments about various sites they descried. But somehow these comments always found their way back to the copper mines of New Mexico.
Lash startled the young man when he suddenly suggested, “Why don’t you try to get hired where I work?”
“Who, me?!” Sal felt both flattered and flummoxed at the suggestion. “They’d never hire me. I’m too young, and I’ve never done that kind of work before.”
John spit a stream of tobacco onto the street. He was perpetually chewing that stuff. On the bus he carried around an empty soda pop can that he spit frequently into. “Shit!” he declared, “They’re always hiring people. Long as you’re willing to work, you’ll do good there. Pays well, too.”
Sal had never lived on his own before. The thought frightened and fascinated him. Here . . . here . . . was an opportunity to make it on his own. He didn’t need college. He didn’t have to go back to living in an abusive home. Why, he could get a good job in New Mexico and never have to live under the roof of an abuser again.
He promised John he’d think about it.
End of Part 1. Come on back tomorrow for Part 2, and the conclusion to this tale.
This is Story #3, entitled Where’s Uncle Buckshot?, from my book, Go West or Go Weird.
This pile of bullshit isn’t very high, so I decided to contain it all in one post, rather than break it down into parts.
Harold and his wife, Lizzie, headed the gang of outlaws, and his sons Bill, Roy, and Tom were part of the gang. And so was Buckshot. Harold’s brother. Or Uncle Buckshot, as he was known to Bill, Roy, and Tom. They were hard working criminals, these six. And enterprising. They made a dishonest dollar wherever they could find one. The good ol’ American way.
They hit their heyday back in the early 1970s, when they were into all sorts of lucrative ways to generate filthy lucre. One of Roy’s favorite gigs was to steal airplanes and fly them down to Mexico. Then he’d load up on cocaine, and fly the drugs back across the border, low under the radar.
He and his brothers also took to illegal gold mining up in the Sierras. They used scuba gear in rivers such as the American and Russian, to find nuggets in the water. They could pick up thousands of dollars worth of the yellow stuff every summer, that way.
Bill was the oldest, and wildest. And so they called him Wild Bill. But he eventually met and married Blanca. She was a big, tough Mexican lady who knocked Wild Bill upside the head enough that it exorcised the wild clear out of him. He went straight and towed the line, with Blanca keeping a watchful eye to make sure he stayed that way. Especially when he hung out with his family.
Harold and Lizzie were the brains of the outfit, but not the back. They organized and instigated, and refereed any infighting to keep it fair, but they never actually committed any crimes. Other than conspiracy.
My sister married Roy about this time, and that’s how I became acquainted with these outlaws. I was just a young stripling, pushing into my teens. But I knew they were tough hombres by their hard faces and rough language. However they weren’t bad folks. That is to say, they weren’t mean. Or at least, they always treated ME nice.
But when they were drinking or doing dope, look out. Those were the times when Roy would get rough with my sister. He broke her nose and jaw a few times, while jacked up on coke and alcohol. And she left him more than once, while fleeing for her life.
And after five years of wedded chaos, she deserted him for good. But during those five years, she saw a lot of shit. And she heard of a lot more shit, when the gang would return home from one of their escapades. And one of those things she heard, concerned Uncle Buckshot.
One day, about 30 years after freeing herself from that family, my sister was visiting me, and casually mentioned Uncle Buckshot. I’d never heard of him before. I felt tickled with his name, and asked her how he had earned such an odd sobriquet. She didn’t know, and said she had never been told. And she said it was probably best that way.
But she did pass on a story to me, about Buckshot. Now this is a hearsay tale, because she wasn’t there when it happened. So it could be pure bullshit. And it is bullshit in one sense. I’ve had to fill in many details with my imagination, due to the sketchiness of this tale. So it might be most accurate to call this fiction, based on possible truth.
She was told the sketchy version one day, after sitting around with her outlaw in-laws, relaxing and just shooting the bull. It suddenly occurred to her that she hadn’t seen Uncle Buckshot in a long time. So she asked about him.
That was a conversation-killing question. And that’s where this modern Western begins.
Where’s Uncle Buckshot?
“Where’s Uncle Buckshot? I haven’t seen him around in awhile.”
Everyone stopped talking. Her husband Roy, and her in-laws fell silent. Not the kind of silence where everyone’s thinking, “Hey yeah, where IS Uncle Buckshot?” No, this was an awkward, floor-staring silence. It was a silence with the message that she should never ask that question again.
Later her mother-in-law, Lizzie, pulled her aside and told her the tale in quiet whispers.
Her in-laws were outlaws. Most had done time in prison. And Uncle Buckshot had been the worst of the recidivists. She’d only met him a few times, between stints in jail or some other correctional facility. And no one had ever told her how he came to be called “Buckshot”.
He was likable enough, but kind of squirrelly. And after meeting him those few times, she realized she did not want to know how he acquired his nickname. Some stories are best left untold.
But here was a different story. And it had been told. Her mother-in-law had spilled those beans into her ear in somber whispers. And it was a story best kept unrepeated. Which is why it was repeated to me, and why I’m repeating it to you. There are good lessons to be learned from unrepeatable stories.
Uncle Buckshot had just gotten out of prison from his most recent conviction. Was it burglary? Grand theft? Assault? Who can remember? His rap sheet was a medley of felonies and misdemeanors.
Fresh out of stir, he joined up with his brother Harold, and sister-in-law Lizzie, and his nephews, Bill, Roy, and Tom, for one of their infamous outlaw forays. A road trip. A vacation for highwaymen on the byway, where crimes of opportunity are spotted by experienced eyes, and freebooters sortie forth to liberate treasures from their careless owners.
Roy’s wife stayed behind to mind business at home, and keep on the right side of the law.
They caravanned across the West in a motorhome and several jeeps. They sought plunder wherever serendipity smiled at them, and lived off the fat of a land populated with unsuspecting victims.
One evening they rolled down a dirt road in western Colorado, seeking a place to park and camp for the night.
The next morning they lounged about like lazy lizards under the unfurled canopy of the motorhome. They were in one of those isolated, hidden spots where silence is palpable as cotton, during dead spots in conversations. There was no sign of civilization around for miles.
Except one sign.
Uncle Buckshot tore through the cotton. He pointed out this solitary sign of civilization. It paralleled their dirt road campsite. “Jist look at those lines,” he mused.
His brother Harold said, “I wonder why they’d have telephone lines way out here?”
“Not telephone lines,” corrected Buckshot, “POWER lines. I know power lines when I see ‘em. Look how thick they are. Way I figger, there must’ve been a town down this road at one time. Those power lines fed the town its electricity. You see that shit all over the West. Abandoned, dead power lines leading to nowhere. They never bother to take ‘em down.”
“Yup,” said Harold. Then another cotton-thick section of silence. Then a clinking and rattling of dishes as Lizzie got to work in the motor home, cleaning up breakfast.
“Know what I’m thinking?” Uncle Buckshot broke the reverie.
Dear Lord help us, thought Harold. When his brother got to thinking, trouble soon followed. Harold did not take the bait. He made no reply.
But Buckshot’s nephews hadn’t learned to be so wary. “Whatcha thinkin’, Uncle Buckshot?” asked Tom, the youngest nephew, with a tinge of eagerness.
“Copper! Those dead power lines are pure copper. We could cut about a mile of that line down, strip it, an’ sell it to a recycler. Must be thousands of dollars up there, jist waitin’ for someone like us to cash in.”
“Yeah someone will cash in alright,” said Harold. “How do you know those lines are really dead?”
Buckshot knew. He just knew. Ipsedixit. It was true, because he said it was true.
“Why, they don’t leave power lines jist sittin’ around, unmaintained, if they were usin’ ‘em. No, hell no. An’ they ain’t usin’ ‘em. There ain’t nuthin’ out here for miles. Jist old ghost towns. An’ look at those poles. Piss-poor condition, I’d say. They’re about to fall over, I’d say. No. Nope. No sir. Those lines have got to be dead.”
Wild Bill and Roy, Uncle Buckshot’s other two nephews, were in on it. Along with Tom, of course, who was always in on anything impulsive and ill-advised. Harold was out. He stomped up the metal motor home steps and retreated inside.
Within a few minutes they found the long-handled bolt cutters. The tool they used for breaking into sheds and stuff. These would do for snipping the lines. Then they rigged up a harness-like contraption out of ropes. They put the harness on Uncle Buckshot and sent him up the pole.
He got the climbing honors because, after all, this was his idea.
Squeezing the ends of the long handles was the last act of the outlaw Buckshot. A flash. A crack that sounded like buckshot itself. And a plummeting to the ground.
“Jesus Shit Christ! Now what’re we gonna do?” Harold muttered as the family gathered around the blackened body.
“Service truck should be coming along within the hour,” remarked Roy. “We gotta get outta here.”
The three nephews loaded their uncle into the back of a jeep, along with a few shovels. They took off down the service road. The motor home, driven by Lizzie, and the other jeep, with Harold behind the wheel, headed in a different direction. The next morning they all met up at a campground near Moab, Utah.
It’s been nearly five decades since Uncle Buckshot disappeared. In the interim, Harold and his wife passed away in rest homes. Tom was arrested in Montrose, Colorado, after a barfight, and hanged himself in his cell. Or did a deputy organize the hanging? Wild Bill went sober and straightened out his life, with his wife’s determined assistance. Roy was divorced.
And Uncle Buckshot’s bones remain decomposing in an unmarked grave near a jeep trail, somewhere in the lonely hills of Colorado.