“It’s OK to be morally bankrupt as long as you’re not breaking the law” Wesley said, pulling back his hood and running a hand over his buzz cut hair. Pepper set the cruise control at 60 as the car passed a troika of dappled horses nosing around the frostwork between a couple antique trucks, old Fords with voluptuous, curvy wheel wells and stately, erect cabs. Morning light cut low above the ridges south of Newberry Crater, and the horses and the trucks cast shadows on the road.
“Have you ever heard of steam punks?” Pepper asked.
“Steam punks. No. What are they?”
“It’s a punk rock sub-movement infatuated with like 1920s blue collar style. Thick baggy jeans, rolled up cuffs, leather boots, suspenders, hair cream and the proper hats and vests and such.”
“What on earth made you think of that?”
“Those Fords I think. Did you see them?”
“With the horses in between.”
A field on the west side of the road was covered in signs bemoaning the end of freedom, the end of justice, the end of America. The stretch of Highway 97 between La Pine and Klamath Lake is remote, sparsely populated, and known for its rugged landscape and outlandish inhabitants.
“Is Winter still out at Christmas Valley?” Wesley squinted his eyes in the direction of said location, though it was fifty miles away.
“He’s out there all right.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Riding dirt bikes. Getting drunk. Starring at the sky.”
“That’s some sky out there. One time I met this guy from Chiloquin at Fort Rock, a drug counselor for the Klamath and Modoc tribes. This old timer, he took kids out and tried to show them a little of the mystery of the terrain. He was humble about it, saying if he could just get one kid per trip to realize there was enough magic in the land to get you higher than anything else could, he’d done his job. Anyway I asked him if they ever went to Hole in the Ground, you know that big asteroid crater?”
“Yeah, I’ve never been there.”
“You should go. This guy told me it’s not from an asteroid at all but way back there was this giant coyote who heard a little murmuring down there in the earth, and it started digging and digging and digging, and finally what does it find? Human beings.”
“Who’d of thunk the origin of human beings was right here in Central Oregon.”
“God does not play dice with the universe.”
“Who said that?”
“Do you remember my friend Albert?”
“We watched Baraka at his house.”
“You were drinking a Dr. Pepper. His girlfriend thought she was being all sly but was like grinding on his leg. Her VJ stunk up the whole room.”
“No way man. I definitely don’t remember.”
They passed the turnoff to Odell Lake. Crows and magpies pecked a roadkill deer decomposing amongst the cinders on the shoulder. A highway patrolman in an SUV pulled over a Prius. Weather was volatile, oscillating between bright, sharp sunlight and fast moving clouds with billowy white tops and flat black bottoms which produced a mixture of rain, hail, sleet, and snow. Pepper drove comfortably, confidently. He was upside down on his car, and always secretly hoped something just horrible enough would happen to it that insurance would relieve his obligations but nobody would be injured. He wore a black hat, a grey sweatshirt, a scar on his left brow left over from a mugging in his teens.
Wesley put a Four Tet disc in the slot. “Do you think you could say aloud the top ten most powerful moments in your life?”
“In order of importance?”
“I mean if you’re able but I was just thinking the top ten, generally.”
“I reckon I could.” They both looked into the window of a vintage VW bus they were passing. The occupants had long hair and wore brightly colored shirts. They waved.
“Well, do it then.” Pepper thought for a moment, listening to the slow development of melody in the Four Tet track, then spoke.
“Watching TGIF at my dad’s house in Stockton and getting a telephone call from my mom saying she was moving to Coo’s Bay. For like a year I’d been praying I’d get to move in with her, and the way I kept myself sane was by always imagining that moment was right around the corner, and I thought I was getting close, and then just like that, all hope and possibility was just yanked away from me.”
“What did you do?”
“I remember just bawling. Just like collapsing on the couch and howling. Not even one those really sad moaning cries but forceful, aggressive, the grief is so strong it fucking pounds out of you.”
“Damn. What’s the next one?”
“A happy one. My tenth birthday. Everyone forgot. Nobody said a word to me about it. So at the end of the night I was pretty crushed, and I was in my room, and I prayed to God to send me a sign. I said I needed reassurance you know, I needed to know I wasn’t alone. And at that very moment a fire hydrant across the street blew fifteen feet into the air. It must have been pressurized incorrectly or worn out or something but there it was. My sign.”
“Have you doubted God, since then.”
“Constantly. Do you?”
“No. Not like you mean.”
“Remember those horses, between the trucks?”
“Yeah I feel you.”
“So what’s number three?”
“There was this puppy playing in the yard across the street. And I was playing in my yard. And I wanted to play with the puppy so I called it over. And it ran right out into traffic and under the wheels of a truck. The driver didn’t even stop. I ran over to it and it was like pulsating. The death rattle I guess. You wanna get some coffee?”
They pulled into the Pilot in Chemult. The town had always been attractive to Wesley. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight Express stopped there at an unmanned platform. There was a Winema National Forest ranger station and a post office. There were annual dog sled races. Then there was the Pilot. They stepped through the automatic doors and up to a grand buffet of coffees and coffee additives. Hazelnut, mocha, Irish cream, caramel, French vanilla, extra caffeine. They had a 64 ounce Thirst Oasis mug. Pepper started filling it with an eclectic mix, adding ice and tasting regularly, until it was full.
“What are you gonna do push that truck down the road?” the clerk asked as he rang up the dollar fifty for the coffee. Wesley bought a bag of fiery hot Cheetos which they ate before their gas tank had finished filling. Wesley cleaned the windshield, and they got back on the road.
“Number four is when I was kicked out of snow camp in the Sierra in 92.”
“Why were you kicked out of snow camp?”
“I blame two guys, Big John, and Jeff Stahl. So lemme paint you a picture. Back then I was all about wearing like full Starter Athletic gear, and Big John was like this ogreish farmboy I’d been feuding with for sometime. So we are all part of this camp through First Baptist Church. And we roll up to Alpine Meadows in our bus and as we’re unloading Big John gets right up in my face. He’s sucking a tootsie pop, and fucking pokes me in the eye with the little stick protruding from his mouth.”
“You know I don’t think people would ever guess you’ve had such a horrible life just by looking at you.”
“It’s a complement.”
“Oh. Well, thank you then.”
“Anyway I fucking flip. I get Big John in a headlock and I’m ready to choke him and kids are screaming when up comes the youth pastor, Jeff Stahl. Stahl and I had been feuding even longer than me and Big John. See, I was rolling with all these prominent kids. Like the kids of prominent members of the church. Like my boy Jeremy, my best friend at the time, his parents ran all the music and sound for First Baptist, they were big donors and really active in the community. Thing is, Jeremy was always getting in all this trouble, but Stahl couldn’t really go to his parents and say your kid’s a fuckup. So he blamed it all on me. Straight classism. Because everyone expects the son of broke ass drug addicts to be doing shit all wrong, so he barely had to try to scapegoat me. And in retrospect I can’t say I blame him, I mean, I think he thought he was doing the right thing, but as he hauled me off Big John and was literally dragging me up toward the lodge, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I snapped. I let fly with every cuss word I knew, bellowing curses at him and thrashing around, and right in front of everyone, the whole parking lot was transfixed. So he takes me to like this nurse’s station with a concrete floor and a little cot, cold as the Yukon, and leaves me there for I shit you not 36 hours before another camp counselor, Matt Bear, was driving back to the Valley and gave me a ride home. Strange thing is, that ride was really transformative. Bear put on U2’s Joshua Tree and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I was raised on oldies or eighties glam rock, and here’s this music that sounds sincere and arty and edgy all at once. The organ on “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “One Tree Hill” really sent me. Bear was a cool cat too, it was heartening to talk with him. He sympathized with how Stahl didn’t listen to my side of the story and Big John wasn’t even reprimanded. My dad came a picked me up at church and didn’t say a word. I was fucking horrified. I thought he was going to kill me. Usually he had such a raging temper. He was a strong dude too. One time he literally threw the couch at me. Our place was always so wrecked, broken lamps and shit everywhere. But this time he didn’t say anything.”
“Did you go to a lot of these camps?”
“Oh yeah there were hella camps. My dad went to them too. There was a camp called PWP: Parents Without Partners. They’d get group deals on meals and movie tickets. All through First Baptist.”
“Was the purpose for everyone to hook up?”
“No! I mean, not explicitly at least. Fucking church camp man.”
“Did you buy the religion?”
“For a while. I mean when I was really young I did. Then I started questioning it. God seemed just like some white dude in heaven who hates us. Or at least hates me. But then there was the fire hydrant. But then the trinity really confused me. I mean, you can’t be your own father right? But when I was twelve I was all into this Mexican girl Mariza and she was getting baptized and so was I and I thought this is my chance to be good. But then one of my dad’s friends from PWP had this daughter Heidi, this little slut, and she was after me hardcore, and I wanted to nail her so bad but then I knew I couldn’t break bad already, just when I was learning what it means to be good. Anyway all the confusion just continued until I was kicked out of the church altogether.”
“When was that?”
“Actually that’s my next moment.”
“Yessir.” They passed a giant statue of an Oreodont in front of a chrome dealer. Passed the Collier Memorial State Park Logging Museum beside the Sprague River near Chiloquin. Klamath Lake spread out beside them, soft and blue as always. A bald eagle perched atop a telephone pole. A gravel pit beside the railroad tracks. A double rainbow disappearing into the lake. They stopped at a mini-mart in the rain, where they filled up the giant coffee mug again and bought another bag of fiery hot Cheetos. They walked out to the Weed sign and took a few photographs. Wesley was wearing a shirt that said “Montanans for Immediate Nuclear War” which drew a lot of confused glances from gas station attendants and convenience store clerks all across the west.
“You know what my mom always used to say?” Pepper’s eyes were wet but he had on his dark glasses as they struck out into Butte Valley. “It’s like you’re the parent and I’m the kid.”
“How did that make you feel?”
“I dunno, like there were no rules in the world.”
“Was that a good thing?”
“Yes and no.”
To the west stood Mount Thielsen, then Mount Scott between the highway and Crater Lake. Around Kirk they’d get a shot of Union Peak above the Sun Pass State Forest.
“So there was a whole string of incidents like snow camp, and all of a sudden I’m moving to Oregon. To live with my mom. It was like getting kicked out of my own fucking life. Turns out Stahl talked my father into it. Said I was headed for Satan or whatever and I needed a fresh community.”
“But you wanted to life with your mom.”
“I know, but the timing was all fucked. By this time I’d made a life out of it. I’d stopped dreaming about being with her and made good friends, put my roots down, if only in an adolescent sense. And you know what Jeremy said?”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Whose fault was it then?”
“Jeff Stahl. So says Jeremy. And of course I agree. Now me and Jeremy had been doing a lot of prank calling in those days, so we were playing fast and loose with the phone, and suddenly he’s like, you should call him. So I do. He picks up.”
“What did you say?”
“This is fucking me up for the rest my life.”
“And that he was wrong about me and what he was doing was wrong and he’d have to answer to God.” Wesley laughed.
“You told a pastor he’d have to answer to God?”
“I did. Half an hour later the senior pastor called my house and told my dad I was banned from the church. For life. The next day I took a bus to Coo’s Bay. Turns out my mom was living in a trailer with her fifty year old AA sponsor who was hopelessly in love with her though she wanted nothing to do with him. I remember running over this grated bridge and when you got going fast enough it felt like you were flying because all you could see was water when you looked down. I passed a timber mill everyday on my way to school, which was always sending a great plume up into the sky. Across the street from the trailer park was a Chinese restaurant and a bus stop. I was always listening to Gish and In Utero and Downward Spiral. My mom worked at Ray’s. I started hanging out with Shawn Goodman down by the railroad tracks.”
“Why the railroad tracks?”
“I dunno. They were there. There were always some old cars parked around there and you could hide between em. Everyone had been telling me that I was doing drugs for so long that I was determined to prove them right and do every drug I could get my hands on. Shawn Goodman got me into punk rock and cigarettes and we’d steal forties from Ray’s and drink em. He always had a shitty little steel string, so we had that too. For Christmas, my mom bought me a bus ticket back to Stockton to see Jeremy and my other friends, but when I get there I decide not to go back to Coo’s Bay, and start couch surfing, living in the heterotopias, on the fringe. I spent a lot of time hanging out at fast food restaurants.”
“Did your dad know you were back?”
“Not at first. But then I went to visit my sister, who lived with my aunt at this point.”
“Your mom’s sister?”
“Why didn’t you ever move in with her?”
“One time she tried to make me eat macaroni and cheese made with mayonnaise instead of butter.”
“That’s fucking disgusting.”
“I know. I saw her looking for the butter and when she couldn’t find it plop a big spoonful of mayonnaise in there.”
“Just thinking about that makes me sick.”
“Anyway she told my dad I was back and he asked around and found where I was crashing. Do we have any fruit?”
They passed Worden and soon entered California above Dorris and then passed the agricultural inspection station. The officer on duty was a young woman who looked like she couldn’t care less if you actually had any produce or not. Pepper sped to 75 through Macdoel beside Meiss Lake and they started climbing up toward Erickson and Grass Lake, Mount Shasta looming ever larger beyond.
“So my dad came and got me at wherever I was staying and tried to take me to juvie. He told them I was a runaway and so forth but they wouldn’t take me. I mean, I hadn’t done anything wrong. So he was hella frustrated, and finally just drove me down some old delta road. Like out the 12 towards Rio Vista or the 4 towards Bethel Island. And then he just left me there, and this was late at night. So I’m standing there in the darkness and every once in a while cars pass and I try to flag them down, but nobody stops. I don’t know if they could even see me and if they could why would they stop? Some crazy kid out in the middle of nowhere. I was out there for hours.”
They pulled into the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden, “dedicated to all veterans.” Snow was falling lightly and it skittered across the pavement. There was a sculpture of a soldier returned home raising his arms to the sky to ask why, soldiers lifting the flag, a prisoner of war in a cage, a female flute player symbolizing peace, another of a woman standing with her arms out as though she were holding the flag after it is folded over her lost love’s coffin. One resembled a desperate, more melancholy version of Rodin’s Thinker. Three nurses carrying a prostrate body on a stretcher. Then there were two figures embracing: the soldier returned home. The pieces were all smooth metal, featureless, stretched somehow, long and lean. Pepper walked to a great marble wall of names and stood in front of it, his eyes closed. The light was black and white, only the faintest shade of green radiated out from the pine needles. Wesley took a shit in the cold outhouse and jogged around the place to stretch his legs. The snow fell harder as they drove through Carrick to Weed.
“So what happened?”
“Finally my dad came back and took me to a fucking mental institution.”
“He claimed it was because I had talked about killing myself, which I had, but like a year earlier, and never seriously. Although I had thought about it seriously, but I never told him that.”
“So did you like the mental institution?”
“Actually, I loved it.”
“Wearing pajamas all day. Carpeted basketball court where you could play barefoot. There were a lot of kids there in worse shape than I was so it gave me a better perspective. I had this acid fried roommate who was fucking hilarious. There was this hot black punk rock girl I made out with in the common room after lights out one night. Have you ever been to the Weed store?”
“No. I’ve always wanted to go.”
Pepper pulled up in front of the store with all manner paraphernalia capitalizing on the alternate meanings of the town’s name. Wesley asked the proprietor how the name came about and she informed him it was named after its founder, Abner Weed, timber baron. Pepper bought a little corncob pipe and started smoking some of the dried out marijuana he’d brought wrapped up in a little piece of tin foil. They pulled into the flow of I-5 and passed a parking lot full of trucks every color of the rainbow.
“Maybe it’s time for number six.” Pepper was quiet for a moment. Woodrow put a hip-hop mix on the stereo. Gang Starr, Mobb Deep, UGK, Company Flow, Wu Tang, Nas, Fat Pat, Goodie Mob, Devin the Dude, Big Pun.
“Number six. I was at the top of the lift in Mammoth. A beautiful, bluebird day. And suddenly I had the most powerful feeling about my sister. Like I could feel her being almost inside my own. It took my breathe away. At the end of the day, when I was through snowboarding, I got the call that she’d been killed in a car accident.”
“Was it a sad feeling, that you got on the lift?”
“No, not at all. Maybe a little melancholy but not sad, just powerful.”
“Were you sad when you found out?”
“Of course. But relieved as well. Because it was one less person I had to worry about failing. Now she could never fail. She’d never have the chance. I never told anyone that.”
“That would be getting married.”
“Like the you may kiss the bride moment?”
“More like the reception, afterward. I had to try hard not to cry.”
“Why not let yourself cry?”
“Wesley, big girls don’t cry.”
“Do you cry when you orgasm?”
“I usually apologize when I have an orgasm.”
“I usually say you’re welcome.”
“My California exodus with my friend Guinevere. After high school I took some summer classes at community college. Eastern Religion and Sociology. Working at Starbucks. I got a scholarship for a thousand bucks, they just cut me the check and that was it. Guinevere was going to Willamette College in Salem and said she had some friends with a room to let for 200 a month, and I thought there’s five months rent right there in that check. I called her up and she drove all the way down and picked me up and brought me to Oregon all in one night. She was all into the RAF and the SDS and her boyfriend was like trying to become a real urban guerilla, culture jammer or whatever. Anyway I got a job at Starbucks and the Gap. Hung out at Willamette. Ate at the cafeteria. One time there was this huge food fight. My friend Frankie caught a cheeseburger somebody threw, and it was still all in one piece, and he took a bite and said it was the best burger he’d ever had. But I still felt like a bottom feeder. A townie. I started trying to smoke every brand of cigarette I possibly could.”
“I had this idea about writing an essay on what you can tell of a person from their cigarette. Like profiling the brands.”
“What did you come up with?”
“How about me. What does my Top say about my personality?”
“Minimalist. Egalitarian. Poor.”
“OK, how about Camel versus Marlboro?”
“Camel is the world standard. It’s international. Marlboro is more working class and Western. Cowboy cigarette. Anyone could be smoking a Camel.”
“If you smoke Parliaments, you party.”
“A girl who smokes Nat Sherman’s is upper class, educated, prissy, isn’t really addicted to those Nat Sherman’s but just smokes them socially or when she drinks. If you get in with a Nat Sherman smoker it’s fat city for you bozo.”
“Could be someone who is health conscious, insofar as they think American Spirits are a healthy alternative to regular cigarettes. They are wary of those additives. Or they like the taste. Or they imagine some connection to Native Americans or the traditional culture of tobacco.”
“Dave’s is a hard cigarette to profile. I think of it as like the indie-pop cigarette. Maybe you smoke them outside a Built to Spill show. I dunno about Dave’s.”
“Kool versus Newports?”
“I think that’s an east coast west coast thing. Newports are east coast, Kools are west coast.”
“I never had any Kents but those are what she’s trying to buy in that Romanian film about abortion.”
They drove over Lake Shasta and down to Redding.
“With you. Alaska. Specifically, that moment under the bridge in Kitwanga. We’d been hitching for a week and that was the most remote spot we’d been in. I remember sitting on the side of the road watching the storm roll in from over Prince Rupert way. And suddenly there was a torrential downpour and we were running for the underpass. We dropped our bags and hopped around, trying to shake off the water, and then I snapped that picture of you, where you are blowing on your hands, and then I felt how much we are all in the wind, remote, how every moment is an encounter with something primitive and unnamed.”
“No, seriously. Any other Alaska moments?”
“Waking up next to that float plane near Tok. The false summit on Mount Sheldon. When we almost split up and were leap froging down the highway, and everyone was warning us about Black Bears, and there were those crazy travelers with the machetes.”
“That was fucking insane.”
“Truly. It all seems so crisp and bright now.”
“More than that. I dunno. And Jimmy the Greek.”
“Jimmy the Greek, he don’t give a fuck.”
“Saying goodbye in the Jack in the Box parking lot. And that girl who gave me a ride. I think she gave me herpes.”
“And your last moment, number ten?”
“Hmmm. I think I’d have to say working at Mission Six. I couldn’t believe I was going to get paid for working at a snowboarding company. And all the free shit I got. It was like Christmas everyday.”
Nobody spoke for some time. They dropped into the Valley. Passed Anderson, Cottonwood, Red Bluff, Corning. They started talking in fake character.
“You know what nobody realizes?” Pepper said. “The most powerful economic indicator, the best representation of consumer confidence is the McDonald’s menu. Every spring, people are feeling a little better, wanna treat themselves, what does the Golden Arches hit us with but bam: McRib. Then again, back in the fall, when everyone was hurting, dollar value meal menu. I tried to explain all this to my business teacher but the bitch wouldn’t listen. She doesn’t even eat at McDonald’s probably. Probably eats at Carl’s Junior. You know they got something called the six dollar burger at Carl’s Junior?”
“Is it really six dollars?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you? It’s called the six dollar burger. Now if you go out on the street and ask people if they’d rather buy a six dollar burger or a one dollar burger, nine out of ten people are gonna go for the one dollar. And that’s just cause one out of ten people’s a fruity wacko. McDonald’s know consumer confidence. That fucking teacher, talking all kinds of shit about me behind my back. See when I talk shit I always talk it to your face. I might tell other people later but I always shit talk you direct first. I’m all about utility, efficiency, that’s the way you gotta be in this world. Unless I’m talking to my wife so help me God. She’s always on me about why I don’t take care of the baby.”
“You don’t have a baby.”
“Don’t get smart with me. I’ll go tap tap lobotomy on your ass. Hey let’s go to Taco Bell.” They passed a big Taco Bell billboard, advertising an upcoming location in Orland. Pepper got three gorditas, Wesley got three seven layer burritos. They tried to fill the giant mug up with soda but the clerks wouldn’t let them. “Cross-contamination” they said.
“Taco Bell isn’t very good for you” Pepper said.
“Everything’s good for you” Wesley replied. “I don’t believe in the idea of something being bad for you.”
“What else don’t you believe in?”
“Randomness, lateness, obviousness, mundanity, chance, uselessness.”
“So you believe everything is useful?”
Together they finished over thirty packets of fire sauce. Wesley started driving.
“Have you seen Aqua Teen Hunger Force Season One?” Pepper asked him.
“What are your top ten moments then?”
Farmland sped past in a blur. The hills between Dunnigan and Vacaville, which are usually parched bone dry looked green as Scotland. There were paintball courses and blue chip firms heralding the beginnings of the bay area.
“Number one is my very first memory. An old man, my grandfather I think, in a red and black lumberjack shirt and an old hunting cap with the ear flaps knotted together beneath his chin. And he’s wearing dark blue jeans and big brown winter boots with fur liners peaking out the top. He’s pushing a sled, a big wooden toboggan with metal runners. We’re in the woods, big pines all around, and its really cold so the steam from our breath fills the air, in fact it’s snowing lightly, so every once in a while my granddad brushes the flakes off his shoulders.”
“Man, your moments are really different than mine. What’s next?”
“The smoking monk.”
“When I was in Burma I caught malaria. I’d been way up north, north of the tropic of cancer, where the people look Tibetan, and I had to get back to Yangon, and I was riding the river, the Arrawady, the whole way. We’d already been on the boat for days, it was surreal, endless zedi studded landscape slipping by, endless fishermen, endless soldiers with their machine guns. Endless sacks of rice. Girls with thanaka faces. Anyway most of the passengers came and went, village to village. One guy, a monk, was with me all the way past Mandalay. He had no baggage, only his bowl. I never saw him eat or drink, but he had a pack of Ruby cigarettes and a yellow lighter. At every stop we’d disembark and could stand on the jetty or the bank amidst the usual chaos of strand roads. I remember one place in particular. I think it was Katha. I bummed a cigarette and smoked with him. Of course we had no language between us. He smoked quietly, slowly, and I remember he closed his eyes. It seemed as though he moved in slow motion. All around him was the hubbub of loading and unloading, but he stood stalk still, the smoke rising in wisps. I never felt so far away from my own life. As though the person I was could so easily disappear. I realized how big the world is. How you can get so far from yourself you never find your way back, and that’s not a bad thing, it’s beautiful actually. God does not play dice with the universe.”
“Evidently not. What bridge is this?”
They’d passed the Six Flags at Vallejo, and approached the refineries of Hercules.
“So what’s number three?”
“Probably waking up on the Algerian border in Morocco. Dawn on the Sahara dunes. These guys had tied their camels up by tying their ankles to their thighs, but the camels could still walk on their knees, and throughout the night they’d gotten like kilometer away. I was traveling with this French girl, Kristine. She didn’t have a hair on her body, besides on her head, and that hair grew to her waist. She was the color of the sand. All of her. Eyes, hair, skin. We drank mint tea. They wouldn’t let us into Algeria.”
They stopped for gas again, in one of those mall towns that seem to be made sixty percent of parking lots. Underneath the florescent lights, Wesley stood at the checkout counter with Amp energy drinks in tall aluminum cans and another bag of fiery hot Cheetos. The clerk was stocking the drink cooler and singing to himself. Wesley wasn’t sure but the melody sounded like Dies Irie. The clerk looked right at Wesley but didn’t seem to realize he was waiting. After a moment, when another costumer queued up behind him, he abruptly ceased singing and hopped the counter.
“Sorry” he said, “I was really in my own universe there.”
“Aren’t we all” Wesley said.
“So what’s the next moment” Pepper asked him once they were back on the road. They were listening to the San Mateo jazz station, which was playing Mulatu Astatke.
“New York City at night.”
“Rooftop party. Brooklyn. Saw lightening strike the Williamsburg Bridge. Rode bikes at dawn amidst Hasidic men in fur caps. A friend I’d been feuding with called and quoted Tupac.”
“I ain’t mad at cha?”
They dropped down into Berkeley, passed Golden Gate Fields. The population grew dense. They drove along the marina and Emeryville and through the McArthur Maze and onto the Bay Bridge. There was a bottleneck at the toll booth. Wesley handed over his four dollars and they approached Treasure Island just as all the financial district lights were coming on.
After my mom died, I was hitch hiking back from fishing season in Alaska, to Big Sur. I’d been in Portland drinking coffee on rooftops with friends and then one gave me a ride out to the coast, I remember we listened to Sung Tongs speeding through the darkness of the coast range, and my friend told me about how he loved to clean his tools at the end of workday, and put them in their proper place, because in the morning, when he’d wake up and go looking for them, the sensation of finding them exactly where they are supposed to be got him high.”
“That’s the moment?”
“No. He dropped me at the dunes and I slept in the sand. The next day I had a string of bad rides. A drunk. A right-wing Christian. Then long waits on the side of the road. It was nearly dark, I was about to give up, because the chances of getting picked up in the dark are slim. I started looking around for a place to camp. This was in Brookings, so I was thinking the beach. Then, up comes this Volvo with Vermont plates. Baby blue, with the green Vermont plates and I know Volvo and Vermont are both good signs. The occupants are two beautiful blonde girls, with blue eyes, in faded plaid shirts and jeans with holes in the ass and at the knees. They are listening to Tom Waits and smoking Drum tobacco. Turns out they are going all the way to San Francisco.”
“So what happened?”
“We drove down the coast the whole way. I slept with them on the beach near the mouth of the Russian River.”
“With both of them?”
“No, consecutively. But later one said she was more turned on by watching than by fucking.”
“Did you keep in touch with them?”
“I never saw them again. But I miss them. She might have been the love of my life.”
“The one I loved.”
Wesley drove them off the highway and up Market to Clayton, to the top of Twin Peaks, where they got out and looked at the city.
“Under the bridge in Alaska.”
“In the Yukon.”
“In British Columbia.”
“Our first overlapping moment.”
“A moment in common.”
“When I was young there was a woman who sometimes took me to school in her bike trailer. You know those neon yellow trailers for kids?”
“Sometimes we’d go to this old time donut shop on International in Oakland. They had so many fucking different types of donuts you wouldn’t believe it. Something about that place, and those steaming, early morning streets. I can’t shake it.”
“I’d been on a bus for 48 hours. Up from Guatemala City. I finally got to Bucerias to see my family, but they weren’t home. The gate was locked. So I threw my pack over and went down to the ocean for a swim. The sun was setting, the water was perfect. I remember floating there as all the waves turned magenta. Light as a feather. Not a care in the world.”
“I know a 24 hour donut shop near here.”
Wesley got an old fashioned, Pepper got a crueler.
“The summit of Broken Top. The silence up there. A loud silence. Echoing off the glaciers.”
They drove out to Ocean Beach. They saw a poster for a “Redneck Reality Show.” Wesley talked about how he was disappointed in God for being so jealous.
“If God really had it going on, he wouldn’t need to trip about people courting other gods. I mean if you’re the shit you don’t worry about people looking elsewhere. You know you got what they need. You know they are gonna come back pleading for more. Like Wu Tang. They know they got something everyone wants to hear.”
They parked next to the Great Highway and walked out to the edge of the water, then back to a sheltered spot in a sand canyon sparsely dappled with bunch grass. Pepper lit up the last of his pot and the smoke bounced off the walls and slipped away.
“Is this really the end of America?” he asked Wesley.
“So they say.”
“So then what’s number ten?”
The last streetcar rattled away behind them, up Judah Street, bound through the Sunset tunnel and down beneath Market Street to the Embarcadero and downtown midnight.
“This is” Wesley said, stretching his arms up to the sky and then bringing them together behind his head.