The shackled red 1965 BSA 500 swayed in the back of Matt’s 1967 powder blue Chevy pick-up truck as the old slant six pushed the shined up metal through the white New Mexico desert eastward toward Mesopotamia where the US government had detailed Matt to a flimsy humvee. In San Diego Matt’s little league and Babe Ruth trophies sit on shelves in his room and his school crap fills drawers, and the dog still wonders, and the nineteen years since Matt’s birth drifted through the house like clouds of finished air, Burroughs couldn’t breathe them with Mindy, and their recent fights unmasked the realization Matt was the only reason certain issues hadn’t already erupted, so fine, she could have the trophies and school work, and the wondering dog, and he took the restored machines. Long before Mesopotamia would be Virginia, where Burroughs’ brother lived and raised daughters, and bragged, when it had been funny, “At least they ain’t cannon fodder.”
Burroughs thought about the saddest things without it making him sad, a gift from the trance for driving since early morning through the desert, the bald mesas and scrub growth flew by idiotically the way paper and plastic fly by an ambulance.
He heard that somewhere nearer the Mississippi things grew and flourished without vast water systems.
His mind had stopped working like a mind, when Burroughs realized a hitchhiker just east of the on-ramp, a half-mile down the road. He woke to a conscious decision to ignore the hitchhiker, but changed his mind, which now worked like a mind, when he saw it was an attractive girl with a stuffed knapsack at her feet, her beckoning thumb part way over the macadam stirred memories of the anxious frontiers where a young woman’s eyes looked back and not past.
New York City, she said. Holy cow, what a truck! What year?
Man, that’s old.
Of course, he thought; ’67 was the year he had been born.
She slung her knapsack between them; it seemed to contain all her life and sentience like an oyster’s shell. She would have been nice for Matt. Mindy again. Millions of seconds passed in a gray streak as he watched her climb in.
Sithy. No, I don’t lisp; Cythera, but they call me Sithy. You ride the bike?
He thought of riding bones. Burroughs put it in gear, and shared what little he knew about BSAs, British, you know, who were into high-performance machinery, added smatters of Matt. What are you doing in the middle of a desert?
She complained about growing up in the deadbeat town just back aways, and gosh, but ain’t it happening in New York, and fuck L.A.; no way she wanted people to think she was looking for a part. Chicago; Home of the Cubs? ain’t there enough futility? And where are you going?
So he lied and said he was going to New York. They take women, too, he mused, imagining her in fatigues, and thought of that desert.
He prompted her to talk about herself and her interests and her impossible visions, because girls, even lying girls, maybe especially lying girls – even if he didn’t want to realize she was a lying girl – dissolve a man’s propriety into a basin of warm instinct. Burroughs vaguely resumed a time when his interest in a woman cancelled his interest in her thoughts. The sound of her voice made her prettier, and he kept up with the questions, which answers lead him farther back from the hanging gardens.
Tranceless miles passed, until there stood, well off the macadam, another hitchhiker. He was copper because he was Native-American, a chip long chiseled from the big, American block, and swept into the desert, never to be bothered again until, of course, somebody found gold there, so flung to another Bureau, which kindly has kept his history in a drawer with some special endowments. And because there were no pennies in his eyes they were black, and didn’t look at Burroughs, they saw through him; it was more complicated than x-rays, they saw into the episode of what it’s like to be dead. He wasn’t near an on-ramp, he had burned in the sun miles and miles from the nearest hope, and maybe that’s why the girl stirred with an unspoken expectation they should stop, so Burroughs did. And just as he did the evening sun slipped under a mesa behind them, and conceived the strange New Mexican premonition of a vast electrical storm. He had a rolled up blanket under his arm. Because the fabric was old and worn the Indian was young, maybe Matt’s age. The girl’s age.
How did you end up here?
The sheriff in Artesia didn’t like me.
Sithy stirred with indignation.
But the Indian stopped her by raising his hand, and asked, Witchita Falls?
Witchita Falls was on the way. The Indian climbed in the truck bed with the BSA. He had no interest in high-performance, or at least asked nothing about it, he sat with his back to the cab and faced backward, westward, past the gloomy bones to a sheriff’s Artesia.
Some miles into falling darkness Sithy stopped answering questions; she wanted to know “stuff” about Burroughs, I mean, where’d you get a name like that? she started.
His parents met in college lit and thought Burroughs was the real voice. He omitted Mindy and Matt and the wondering dog and years in Customer Service, where he’d done quite well, he didn’t have to actually talk to customers, he trained people how to talk to customers, and it was a big company, and it gave promotions, and his brother with the daughters in Virginia didn’t have to worry about him, he was fine, even if Mindy got the rest. Instead he told Sithy a fabulous tale about aviating and adventure, and ain’t life grand even if you don’t have a pot to piss in. He was more than twenty years older than Sithy, old enough to know better, and Mindy had been his only ignorance all the years grounded, but on he flew.
Night, entropy spread into the long, long drive.
Burroughs began to hallucinate children running onto the highway and said he’d better pull over and get “shut eye,” like it would require fifteen minutes, although he would need more, but he felt timid about the arrangements, because when the Chevy stopped moving he knew the desert would turn into something different, he didn’t know how, maybe the sun buried in some sheriff’s heart of hearts would never rise again, or it would rise from the west, or just rise like it had for nineteen years and not offer any excuses.
Over there beyond his doubts was a crag, it may have been volcanic rock flung from Albuquerque or a fizzled meteor, but it was big enough to hide the Chevy from the highway, and maybe the queasy breeze would erase the tire tracks and prevent some moseying sheriff’s interest. The desert was full darkness; as he got out of the truck the spatter of stars reminded him of a coke party in the ‘80s. He had a sleeping bag and she that tiny knapsack, and what was she thinking, anyway?
I’ll stay here, said the Indian; the Chevy was backed up to the meteor instead of a drawer, and his old blanket draped from his shoulders.
Burroughs laid out the sleeping bag like a short highway, it just abruptly began and ended and the sands made no destination, until Sithy said, Why not over there? to where there posed shyly in the night a baby meteor, not the height of a lamb but taller than sleepers, oh maybe only a couple of hundred feet away, she even took his hand, and the way there felt wild with pulse and no breathing.
But there was youth, more a mood than condition; it’s possible to restore conditions, as Matt might have pointed out, because he’d done it with the Chevy and BSA, but even with the dents and faded paint and plugs addressed, nobody would say they were young. Burroughs, a Customer Service manager, fucked Sithy, while Sithy aviated and gulped air. He felt lifted from the salty ocean clogged with single-use plastic baggies he’d seen down by the San Diego harbor, and transported to a freshwater lake in a crisp, north Canadian province, and the lake had no conditions, the lake even – if it wasn’t lying – let a wind disturb its surface. There the mood died, and his condition unveiled. He cried on a shore with Matt’s remains, god, that mess Christians make of late-term abortions, the desert just ran with bloody tissue, there was nothing but shreds in that stupid coffin, but Sithy’s soothing voice and the distant, long promised but silent electrical storm finally gave sleep, and the last one he questioned was the wondering dog. I wonder, too; what the fuck? What the fuck happened to him?
It rose from the east after all, wide and sage like the Capitol dome, and Burroughs was alone. The BSA had been unloaded from the Chevy, and Cythera and the Indian were long down the road, probably past Lubbock, somewhere nearer the Mississippi, a flourishing place they belong or think they belong, in any condition but his, but the bike was gone; Burroughs imagined them quietly pushing it down the highway until they were out of noise, and then firing the baby up, and roaring off, not thinking about sheriffs, just aviation and the crazy sky dreams kids have, maybe that was the key to Everything.
The Chevy drove more easily without the BSA shackled to the back. Rather than beeline to Virginia he navigated without a map. And it was not too many miles out of Denver on a four-lane highway where busy Colorado customer service workers placated like a swarm of high performance locusts where he saw her, again hitchhiking. He was in the left lane where he didn’t belong.
She recognized him. She wagged her thumb over the macadam with the urgency of his next breath.