Together, they took it all to the storage space where Scooter’s band used to practice. It would be safe there among the shitty amps and toy drums. The place was paid up through the next six months.
In two weeks, Jake’s rent would be due. The owner would come knocking, put up his eviction notice, et cetera. Then they would take all his stuff out and give it away or burn it or whatever. Fernando would live on scraps until someone new moved in, or he would starve to death and the new tenants would wonder about the smell. There goes a boring story about a boring life.
They stopped at a gas station and bought an atlas of America, a five gallon can and a length of hose that were Scooter’s idea, some beef jerky, and a thirty pack of shitty beer. They threw it all in back with their backpacks that held enough clothes for a day or two and their toothbrushes. Scooter started mapping out a route. They drove north to the freeway.
Jake had become the D.B. Cooper of the food service industry. He had hijacked his dignity and now he was gone forever. But I should mention that saving yourself isn’t heroic. This can’t be compared to surviving the Holocaust or the Bataan Death March. A crappy apartment isn’t Darfur. Jake doesn’t know this kind of perspective. He’s got his own personal tragedy of mediocrity and bad circumstances. Even so, I’ve got to keep telling this story.
The roads were deserted except for the occasional police car. All the drunks were at the 24 hour diners or the Taco Cabana, and cops were running routes that took them by each one like carrion birds. Jake’s empty world was expanding to encompass the entire town, and eventually the whole country. It was beyond all scientific explanation, and no one would notice. They were stopped at a red light.
Jake looked in the side mirror. Back there was everything that he was indifferent towards, everything he hated, and the tiny little part that he loved but would never admit to. He imagined himself back there, waving as hard as he could, like an eight year old would wave, using the whole arm and smiling, smiling like his face would split in half. Good bye, Jake! Don’t come back! Don’t come back.
Kimmy might listen to the tapes, and maybe she would get it. Then again maybe she wouldn’t. It didn’t matter anymore.
And here, he said his goodbye to all the people he was isolated from. The ones he wished he knew, the ones he would miss without ever knowing. All those times he said “maybe next time” when he meant never, and now it was never and he can’t take it back and he wanted to. He wanted to know Andy and Derrick and Craig and Jason and Tree and Heidi and Amanda, Tina, Bubbles, Kristin, Nick, Zach, the other Zach, Kim, and all the rest just like I did, but we had both said “maybe next time” and now the curtain is down forever and the only way they will live again for me is to put them right here on paper.
Jake cleared his throat and said, “I won’t be able to breathe until we’re on the freeway.”
As he turned left onto US 290 he lifted his wrist in a half wave back at himself and everything else. Good bye, Jake. Good bye.
They drove for hours, listening to the mix tape that Jake had made. The magnetic tape started to wear a little, but with each listen it just made more and more sense. It was perfect. Or good enough. Slow to fast, loud to soft, smooth melodies and guttural screams. It was the embodiment of everything, the sum of Jake’s experience. They knew it by heart after one listen.
Soon they were singing, softly at first, but then screaming along with the windows down, letting go of all pretension and modesty. It was a big, ugly, loud way to live a life. All hoarse voices and missed notes until the pain settled in and they were whispering it again, no longer timid but graceful.
Yellow lines became one long yellow line as the eyes started to blur, just like the commercials late at night. It all becomes a dull roar and a blur as all the hurts and the fears of your life fade out to road noise and your favorite songs until a gurgling in your stomach signals the time to get food and switch drivers.
. . .
“I felt like one day I was going to wake up and find out that no one really liked me. It was all just a trick. The number one fuck you from everybody.” Jake stared down into his cup of coffee, wondering if he would find any grounds when he got to the bottom. He always looked for the coffee grounds at the bottom.
“That wouldn’t ever happen.” Scooter was looking across the restaurant at the painted cow skull hanging from the wall. It was the requisite red white and blue, the only real bit of color in the place. The rest was all done up in brown and darker brown, with some tan thrown in for good measure. The cow skull stood out as an unintentionally comical tribute to America. I used to eat here, drunk, at two in the morning, and we would always say that someone had embraced the tradition of using all of the buffalo in that cow skull, and that hopefully somewhere there were cow testicles painted up with the stars and stripes.
“Why not?” Jake looked up at Scooter, who was barely paying attention.
“It’s already been done. They made a movie about it,” he said as he continued to look at the cow skull.
“Oh.” Jake went back to looking at his coffee as he waited for his cheese fries with ranch dressing. He opened a small container of creamer and some of it got on his shirt, then he poured it into his mug, watching it slowly swirl and color of its own volition. White and black make brown, apparently. Part of him couldn’t wait to be away from ranch dressing on diner food. Did they have ranch dressing in Seattle? He hoped not. In Texas, it and cream gravy flow through the very veins of the restaurant industry.
“And besides,” Scooter said, “don’t you think people would have been nicer to you? Or, I don’t know, involved you?”
Jake didn’t respond. The waitress came out with two oval plates, one with cheese fries and another with chicken fried steak. The waitress was more dignified than her plaid shirt and stained apron allowed. She was going gray at the temples and had wrinkles around her eyes and lips, the consequences of a lifetime of smiling. She winked at Jake as she placed his plate on the table. It was disconcerting. Jake still couldn’t get around the idea that everybody was faking, and the woman seemed to him little more than big hair and an apron, which was exactly how she would be on television.
“Okay,” Scooter said, holding up a sloppy piece of fried meat on the end of his fork, “What about me?”
“You’re either the only one I can trust, or the best fucking ringleader in the world.”
Scooter just smiled and chewed his food. He played games. He was always playing games.
“God,” Jake said between bites, “You’re such an ass hat.”
Scooter swallowed and took a sip of water. “Whatever. So is it my turn to drive?”
“You know,” Scooter said, “your car doesn’t go for shit, and this food tastes like a fried tire.”
“It’s gonna be a hell of a trip.” Jake said it sarcastically, but with just a hint of sorrow.
They ate in silence for a few minutes and Jake’s face turned more and more toward his plate. Finally he was staring down at it intently, frowning like he’d found Jesus in the rubbery cheese and little pools of grease, and it wasn’t what he was looking for after all.
“I don’t know. I guess I just thought leaving would feel more liberating, but it’s just a big downer.”
“What are you talking about?” Scooter’s words were muffled and halted by chewing. “You’re getting a second chance and we’ve left that awful town behind us. You should be excited.”
Jake watched the waitress clean her fingernails as he spoke, “Yeah, I guess, but it’s just odd. When I lived in Barker it felt like I was at summer camp all year round. No matter what I did it wasn’t home, and it would never be home. Nothing made it comfortable. It’s like the whole town was a dorm room, and eventually I knew I had to leave. But now that I’ve gone, it was home. And I’ll never go back again.” He looked back down to his cheese fries. “Things have changed forever for the rambling boys of pleasure.”
“First of all, that’s a good use of a song quote for once,” Scooter said as he scraped his knife back and forth on his plate. “And second of all, what’s so good about a home? They all just fucking break anyway. You, of all people, should know that.”
“You, of all people, should fuck off.”
“Come on man, I‘m being honest. There’s nothing in a home that’s worth holding on to. Everyone in the world is just another disappointing person, even the ones that share DNA. Even you. Even me. Eventually, we’ll either hate each other or just fade out of each other’s lives.”
“Thanks for the negativity. I must be rubbing off.”
“It’s not negativity, it’s honesty. Cling to now. Be your own home.” Scooter had taken on the same kind of energy that he had on stage, a resolve and hardness found rarely outside of religion. The two locked eyes for a second, and Jake thought that the waitress was listening to them even though she hadn’t shifted from the spot where she was cleaning her fingernails across the restaurant. It became clear that he was exposed in a way that he always avoided.
They didn’t say much of anything else until they were back on the road. They just sat there and chewed their food.
. . .
They drove for another four hours as the sun came up to their left, for the first time offering promise for all concerned. They made awful time and blew thick blue smoke all over the scrub fields and sad little towns and fruit stands. They waved to the Mexicans building the roads and the inmates cleaning them. Keep them out. Lock them up. They don’t look like you, they don’t act like you.
This was Scooter talking. Scooter had a million stories about how America was fucking us and everyone else, about depleted uranium shells that kill the soldiers that use them, about old black men who aren’t allowed to vote, about dropped bombs that don’t make the daily news. I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention to any of it, and neither was Jake.
“But who’s to say that their problems are any worse than mine? I’m dying too. I’ve been fucked too.” Jake had listened to it for three months now and finally had something to say about it.
“That’s true.” Scooter answered, “But the question is, how do you use that? I’ll tell you something I’ve figured out: life is made up of a series of shitty events designed to turn you into exactly who you need to be. You think you’re making decisions, but you’re not. It’s all just chemicals and market forces. You can’t control any of it, so you might as well use it.”
Scooter didn’t believe any of this, not really. He’s trying just as hard as I am to cobble together a philosophy for himself and for Jake. Fate is just a way to not feel guilty.
They both watched the road, silent, as the tape started over. Out in the scrub fields a dead mesquite tree made a half-hearted grab for heaven, and for fourteen seconds it was just that tree and the wind.