The fog was coming in heavy, heavier than usual for Natchitoches that time of year. Slim watched it coalesce and hang, make specters of man and machine. Blinking neon turned to dull drunk haze. Ragged steel and dirt and bare trees and watery ditches given a vague smoothness. The dull roar of the highway and jake brakes pushing through the gray. The cold breeze came with it and made Slim turn his collar up.
As it was and perhaps always would be. A pine forever falling in the dark with no one to hear its swampy crash. Slim took a drag of his Marlboro and tried to walk back through time. New Orleans was the star, a prized whore who danced on command, bought and paid for by Yankees, but Natchitoches was the eldest sister of them all, sitting in the corner in her quiet, tattered state, gaining an inch but losing a foot against the rust and rot, humid time creeping into everything. Maybe even since the French Canadians three hundred years ago, who met only muddy cypress knees and unblinking horrors in the dark water, but who stayed, anyhow. And now Slim was waiting to be picked up by Bobby in his piece of shit car that had also been dying since forever.
Bobby who was always yelling at someone over the phone in Creole over top of the local zydeco station. Slim didn’t know the language. His grandmother used to speak it to him in endless streams when he was a child, but it was lost to the many years, washed down the Red River like so many other things. Bobby who had worked at the paper mill for twenty years, but fancied himself a shrimp boat captain at heart, always rambling about “getting back on the water” while being covered in lime dust and pulp shavings accumulated from second shift. Slim told him he ought to, that he wasn’t getting any younger. Bobby always had something to say about money and kids. As though the union pay wasn’t good and his wife wasn’t tending the house and children all day.
The sun began to appear through the trees as diffuse gold, giving things perhaps more gleam than they deserved. A moment of El Dorado before it evaporated back to the mythic. The day felt right. The cosmos might align and the tides might come favorably. It was December 17th. Slim wasn’t a vodouisant, but he was willing to borrow a little luck.
The cold diesels and bleary eyes, cloaked in camouflage and neon, receded with their coffee and donuts and crawdad meatpies to job sites and jon boats. In their wake hung thick fumes and the piss stench of exhaust fluid. Slim was about to bring a dying flame to another cigarette when Bobby pulled in. His car, old enough to have antique plates but which Bobby “didn’t give a shit about,” was burning oil, puffing blue smoke from the tailpipe. On the back floorboard was a perennial quart of oil. Slim waves, gets in, and has to slam the door several times in order for the latch to hold.
“What’s it like, driving around a deathtrap?”
Bobby pushed the clutch in, shifted to reverse, and started backing up, smoke from the exhaust making its way through the open windows. He struggled to get it into first gear, the car gnashing its teeth in protest. Slim waved his hands in an attempt to push the smoke out, but failed.
“Why’d you wanna meet here instead of your house? You walk here?”
“Yeah. I dunno. It was a walkin’ kina mornin’. Wanted some coffee.”
“I don’t know a single soul who takes gas station joe over home brewed.”
“They make it pretty good here. They do it right.”
“If you say so.” Bobby pulled out onto the highway and went from second, to third, and then to fourth without the clutch. “So the plan’s changed a bit. A lotta bit, actually.”
“Say it ain’t so. What fresh hell you gotten me into, now?”
“Well. We ain’t goin’ to Baton Rouge anymore. It’s Bogalusa now.”
“Bogalusa? What’s that, like six hours one way? Jesus Christ Bobby.”
“Ay. Watch the blasphemy. It’s four and a half.”
“That’s a whole damn day, round trip.” Slim rubbed his eyes. “Remind me why I’m spending my day off doing this?” He pulled out a smoke and went to light it.
“Ay, not in here.”
“You’re being funny, right? You been huffing that shit comin’ outta the tailpipe for what, ten years? And you’re concerned about this?”
“And I’m healthy as an ox. Waiting ten minutes won’t kill you.”
“No, but bein’ in this car might.”
“Funny.” Bobby downshifted and turned down a dirt road. The car sounded like a mass of metal held together by sewing thread. “And you’re doin’ this ‘cause you’re a good friend, and also ‘cause you’re getting paid.”
“Paid, am I?”
“Sure. Heck. you know I ain’t doin’ it for free. Otherwise I’d be off somewheres catching a catfish or three.”
“My cup runneth over.” Slim stuck the cigarette behind his ear.
Bobby nodded. “Surely goodness and love will follow.”
“It ain’t liable to.”
“You ought to be more optimistic, bud.”
Bobby pulled off the road into a dirt lot, at the center of which was a rectangular metal building. Around it were cars and trucks in various states of decay and repair, all threatened to be consumed by tall grass. A tall oak tree and its spanish moss ornaments casted swaying shadows across it all. The bay doors to the building were fully retracted. Two trucks were elevated on floor lifts, and a half dozen men milled around them. Several large shop fans pushed around red dirt and all but drowned out classic rock blaring from hidden speakers.
Bobby parked in front of the building, and no one seemed to notice. Slim stood by the car and lit a cigarette while Bobby disappeared through a door. Slim’s sunglasses offered little against the sun, and even though it was nowhere near its apex, he could feel the back of his neck begin to burn. Beads of sweat began to form on his shoulders and run down the center of his back in little rivulets. Slim thought about getting back in Bobby’s car, but he didn’t have the keys, and it would surely be hotter than hell. He decided instead to step just inside a bay door, doing his best to keep out of the way of the mechanics.
Slim was beginning to grow restless by the time Bobby came back out. Bobby waved for Slim to follow him.
“Damn, what were y’all doin’ in there, havin’ afternoon tea?”
“Yeah, he’s a talker.” Bobby double tapped a key and a Ford F-250 beeped and flashed its lights. A large wooden crate was strapped down in its bed.
They climbed in and Slim figured the cab looked nicer than any house he’d ever been in, much less a truck. The smell of warm leather wafted up to him like a fragrance. Bobby turned the engine over, and it sounded like a jet engine at full thrust.
“This is some damn truck.”
Bobby nodded. “It’s a monster. It’s Charles’ baby. Got a delete and some kinda wild tune, in case you drive it later. A little throttle goes a long ways.”
“My ass ain’t never seen a nicer chair, I don’t think.”
“And it might not ever again. These things don’t come cheap. But he did say you could smoke in here. But please roll down the dadgum window.”
“You got it.”
Bobby leaned back and reached into his pocket, pulling out a thick stack of cash. He peeled off three hundred dollar bills and handed them to Slim.
“Damn. Alright.” Slim took the money and went to put it in his shirt pocket, but paused. “This is a good bit of money. What’re we hauling, gold bricks? Government secrets?”
“Look at it like a day’s work worth of pay. Also I don’t know.” Bobby put the truck in gear and slowly pulled out onto the road.
“You don’t know? That don’t concern you? At all?”
“Why should it? How’s it any different from the post office? Them mail guys in those trucks don’t know what’s in them boxes.”
“But we ain’t the postal service.”
Bobby shrugged. Slim put on his seatbelt and pressed a button to lean the seat back. A small motor whirred somewhere to oblige his request. Bobby found an empty road and opened it up. The cypress trees became endless blurred walls of brown and gray, bulging inward from the miles of water eager to swallow everything. The road was more pothole than smooth, and it rocked Slim to sleep.
He dreamed he was standing on a dock alone, deep along some creek where, since the Sixth day, only beasts had ever stepped. The water before him began to churn, as though something in the depths was fighting for its life, or else Hell was coming up through the dirty black to take his. Cypress knees wilted and touched the water as rattlesnakes. The wood under his feet sagged and turned to rubber, caving beneath his weight. His feet were encased in lead and they brought him down until his mouth filled with the tannic water.
Slim was jolted awake by Bobby hitting the brakes hard. “Sorry. Old boy decided he had to turn right damn now.” Slim watched the no-name towns start sliding by again, faster and faster, themselves brief pauses on the downward slope of time. Strip malls that were never more than half-full, car lots with nothing but three old beaters out front. Mom and pop restaurants that never crawled into success, only to plowed down two years later to make room for corporate food. On and on and on. “Home towns” no one honestly claimed except cloudy-eyed geezers in old folks’ homes, who remembered better times no other person or history book had seen. Slim looked at Bobby, who was tapping on the steering wheel to the beat of a song only he knew. The radio was playing, but it was low and mostly static, overlapping sometimes with a praise and worship station. “…He will subdue our iniquities…cast all their sins into the depths of the sea…” Slim turned it off.
“You ever think about what it must’ve been like to be the first explorer here? The first foreigner?”
“Not since grade school, I reckon.”
“No roads, no nothing. Endless grass and low land.” Slim laughed. “No damn air conditionin’.”
“Personally I’m glad we were a couple hundred years too late.”
“I reckon we’re a good deal too late to see anything for the first time.”
Bobby shrugged. “They say there’s some places in South America. What they call it? Oh, the Amazon, yeah. They say there’s some places in the Amazon no man’s ever been to, tribal or otherwise.”
“No shit? Why you think the tribes never been through there?”
“Dunno. Land of legends and frightful things, maybe Of Gods.” Bobby laughed. “Amazonian loup garou.”
Slim cackled and drew a cigarette from the nearly-empty pack. He lit it and immediately cracked the window. The rushing wind gently pulled the smoke out of the cab.
“How long was I asleep?”
Bobby looked at the clock on the dashboard. “I ain’t sure. Don’t quite remember what time it was we left. A while, though. An hour or two.”
“Damn. It’s these seats, I’m telling you.”
“Don’t I know it. Imagine how I’m doin’ over here, trying to avoid Johhny DingDong in his little Honda.” Bobby looked at the fuel gauge. “He didn’t leave us with a full tank. Figure we might as well top and fill up so we don’t have to worry about it later.
“Yeah man, that works for me.” Slim pressed another button to raise the seat back to its original position.
They stopped at a newly built chain gas station. Slim figured it would look good for six months before the mildew found it and the parking lot became an ashtray. There would be a bustling market for travel agents selling trips you didn’t even have to pack for.
Slim offered to pump and Bobby nodded, saying he had to go inside to pay first. Slim watched from the pump and waited for it to click on. He inserted the nozzle and locked the pump as open as it would go. The pump was painfully slow. Slim used the time to stretch. He squatted low several times, stood up straight, and gradually reached to touch his toes, holding it.
Bobby had a handful of snacks and a large soda, and was staring at Slim as though he was an exotic animal.
“What’re you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing, Bobby?”
“Uh. Looking for some change you dropped?”
Slim stood up, his face red with rushed blood. “Can you touch your toes?”
“Not a clue. Ain’t tried in probably ten, fifteen years.”
“Don’t you think you should be able to?” Slim glanced at the pump. Only twelve gallons had made it to the tank so far.
“What for? Reach my toes just to touch ‘em?”
“What if there’s something on the floor that you need to pick up?”
Bobby worked his way up into the cab. “That’s what wives and children are for!” He slammed the door shut.
Slim went inside to buy coffee, and by the time he came out the pump had finally finished. He replaced the nozzle and got in the truck. Bobby cranked it, and they were off again.
Slim was nearly asleep again by the time Bobby was turning onto a narrow and crumbling asphalt road.
“I’m pretty sure, yeah.”
There was an opening in the trees, and Bobby pulled into it. Two trucks were already parked there, and several men were standing around them. Slim began to feel as though it wasn’t just an engine they were delivering. Bobby pulled up alongside them, put the truck in park, and cut the engine off. They both got out of the cab.
A man walked up to them with a scowl. “Who the hell’re y’all?”
Bobby walked up and stuck his hand out. “I’m Bobby, and this here is Slim. The man didn’t shake Bobby’s hand.
“Where’s Charles at?”
“He couldn’t make it or somethin’. Asked me if I could drive down here and drop this off for y’all.”
The man crossed his arms and nodded in Slim’s direction. “What’s he doin’ here?”
“Slim? Nothin’. Keepin’ me company on a long ride. Too easy to fall asleep on these roads out here.”
The man dropped the tailgate. “Is it all here?”
Bobby shrugged. “Ain’t got a clue. Don’t even know what’s in it. Was just helpin’ out an old friend.” Bobby realized his gut was poking out, and pulled his shirt down to cover it.
The man motioned at the others, who began to loosen the ratchet straps across the crate. They slid it to the edge of the tailgate and four of them struggled to carry it to their own truck.
“I reckon that’s it, then.” The man uncrossed his arms and put his hands in his pockets.
“Alrighty.” Bobby waved and walked to the cab. Slim made eye contact with the man and held it. The man’s jaw flexed.
“I’ll drive, Bobby.”
“Oh, right. Would be nice to catch a nap.”
Slim wasted no time firing up the engine and getting back out on the road. “Well, that was odd.”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you serious? Did any part of that seem normal to you? We’re dropping off stuff in the middle of bum fuck Egypt to a bunch of dudes no don’t seem keen on strangers.”
“I guess. I didn’t think much of it.”
“It wasn’t right at all. Felt all wrong.”
“Take it easy. You’re overthinkin’ it, bud.”
“Made me real uneasy. I wanna get the hell out of here.”
“Well, you’re drivin’, and there’s the road.”
“You ain’t tellin’ me twice.” He barely touched the throttle, and the speedometer read eighty.
“Alright but maybe don’t kill us in the process.”
It was twenty minutes before Slim saw the truck accelerating towards him on the otherwise empty highway.
“That truck.” Slim pointed at the rearview mirror. “That’s the truck they loaded the crate on. And it’s comin’ up real damn fast.”
Bobby turned around and looked through the back window. “I wonder what they want.”
“I can promise you this ain’t gonna end well.”
Slim slowed down, and the truck pulled up alongside him. Driving it was a young man from the meetup.
“What? What for?”
“You fucked us.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“The crate. It ain’t what we agreed on.”
“We didn’t agree on jack shit, kid. You got a problem, you take it up with Charles.”
Slim’s eye was caught by something glinting in the young man’s passenger seat, a nickel plated pistol. Bobby was feverishly looking back and forth between Slim and the kid, holding onto the dash and door handle as though he was strapped to a rollercoaster.
“Pull. The fuck. Over.” Slim saw him reach for the pistol.
Without thinking, Slim floored it.He and Bobby were pushed back into their seats as a large plume of black smoke was pushed out of the oversized exhaust. In a few seconds, they were doing a hundred, a hundred and ten. Bobby shouted.
“What the hell are you doing?!”
Slim was breathing heavily, his hands darkly-tanned hands white from gripping the wheel. “How do you think this ends, Bobby? Did you not see he was goin’ for a damn gun? You have gotten us both into a world of shit, Bobby. A world of it.”
Slim could tell the truck was trying to catch up with them, but couldn’t muster the power. It fell back a good distance, then stopped and turned around entirely. Bobby had been watching in the rearview mirror, and sighed deeply.
“This ain’t over yet.” Slim eased off the gas back down to the speed limit. Bobby had his head in his hands and was muttering under his breath.
“I don’t figure we can do anything but keep driving. There ain’t jack shit out here. Nowhere to stop. Probably no cops, either.”
It was ten minutes before Slim saw it in the mirror. A red Corvette screaming towards them. He figured there was no point in trying to outrun it.
“Here he comes, Bobby.” He looked over at Bobby, who was still cradling his face. Slim thought he could hear him quietly praying. The Corvette pulled up next to him and rolled the window down. There was already a short-barreled rifle in his right hand. Slim hadn’t felt death’s hot whisper so closely since he was a child. The thought made him shudder.
“You’re gonna pull over right now, and we gonna sort this out.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to sort out. We told you. We don’t know what we were droppin’ off.”
“I don’t give a good goddamn. Pull the fuck over before I make you.”
Slim looked back at Bobby, who was looking out the window, silently sobbing. “I’m Sorry, Bobby, but I don’t see no other way.” He paused. “Goddammit I never should have left Natchitoches this morning. And my goddamn day off.” Bobby turned to him, looking confused. Slim rolled up the window and floored it again. The Ford pulled ahead for a few seconds before the Corvette caught him again, just as Slim hoped he would. “Hold on, Bobby.” Slim jerked the wheel to the left, hitting the Corvette and causing it to spin into the ditch. Slim’s skin went cold when he realized he overestimated. The truck went sideways and skidded before the knobby tires caught the road and flipped it several times.
The water was calm under the afternoon summer sun. Slim was nine years old and in the front of the boat while his father was steering the outboard, slowing down to enter a narrow trenasse.
“Gotta ease in, can’t spook da fishes.” Slim nodded. His father, the fish shaman, who either knew every hole, or knew how to find them. A fishing pole for a dowsing rod. Always looking at the trees or the water’s surface or listening to the way a single bullfrog croaked a hundred feet away, interpreting floating leaf chicken bones for signs only he was privy to. His father cut the engine and let the aluminum boat coast before he began to push it with a long bamboo staff.
“Dis place feelin’ good. Git you line and you bait ready.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the. “Ah. Gonna park it a minute and take a leak. Throw a line in and see what we got.” As his father took a step onto the bank, he gasped loudly. Slim spun around to see his father fall backwards into the water. Slim dropped his fishing pole, jumped on the bank, and pulled his father as far onto the bank as he could. Slim’s father was breathing shallowly and gripping his chest. Slim didn’t know what to do, had never seen his father so fearful. His father reached out, touched Slim’s face, and then went unconscious. Slim began to cry, and then sob, shouting at his father to wake up, pressing his chest as hard as he could. Slim sat on the ground as a flock of starlings undulated overhead and paused, unsure, before continuing on.
Slim sat and watched, through blurred eyes, his father become just a body. A soft, momentary monument to ten thousand things said and done, and a million more left untouched. The sun would set soon, and Slim had no idea where they were or how to get back. He looked at the boat, and back at his father. He resolved to pull his father’s body as far up the bank as he could, but he was a large man. Slim was forced to leave him in the water just above his knees. He climbed in the boat, into the seat that only his father had ever occupied. He turned the boat around and cranked the engine. As he exited the trenasse and took the engine full tilt, Slim looked back at his father and began sobbing again.
He stared at the front of the boat. A place he’d sat countless times across sunrises and sunsets and perfect days and driving rain. A place he’d never sit again. It took twenty minutes before he found another soul. He aimed the boat for the little pirogue and waved fervently. He came upon the old man and tried to relay what had happened, but couldn’t get words through the tears and snot.
The man seemed to understand well enough. “Lead the way, son.”
Slim turned the boat around and led the man to the opening of the trenasse. The man stood and looked down the canal. “Wait here.” Slim cut the engine and let his boat drift into the mud. The man slowed his engine and disappeared around the corner. He reappeared a few minutes later, his boat sitting lower in the water.
“Let’s git you home, youngin.” Slim saw that he had draped a tarp across his father’s body. The wind caught a corner and revealed one of his father’s legs was missing from the knee down, shredded by a meat grinder from the deep. The old man led the way, and they rode into the setting sun.
Slim was upside down when he came to. The sun was directly in his eyes and he used a bloodied hand to shield them. His double vision lessened, and he looked to his right. There was only an empty seat and broken glass. Slim braced himself before taking off his seatbelt, but found his arm could take no weight without sharp pain. He unbuckled anyhow, and groaning, crawled out of the cab. He leaned against the upturned truck while trying to find his feet. Slim looked across the street and saw the Corvette half-down the sharply-angled ditch, smoke coming from under its hood. There was no motion coming from inside it.
Slim staggered to the other side of the truck. His stomach dropped as his eyes came upon Bobby, who was lying motionless. He stumbled over to Bobby and got on his knees, shaking. Bobby was conscious, but barely so. Slim looked at his entire body, but could find no wounds. Bobby was trying to mouth some words, but couldn’t find the breath.
“Goddammit Bobby. I’m sorry. I’m so fuckin’ sorry.” Slim looked over his body again, and realized Bobby was impaled on a narrow cypress knee. It was stained red, and blood steadily flowed down it. Slim took his hand, but there was no life in it. He cradled Bobby’s head and began to weep as another car came upon them and stopped.