The International Writers Magazine: Travel Stories
Outside Santa Fe
And again the dream repeated the day. When darkness came and hatches of insects emerged from and hovered over the sugar cane fields, Will found a place to sleep. He woke in the damp dark night and reached for something that wasn’t there.
Relieved to be off his bike, Will’s legs wobbled as he revived his walking muscles.
Content enough to be out of the saddle after having tired of making circles, he quickly remembered that it’s somebody’s property where he’s setting up his one-man tent. “Everything’s owned by somebody, everything’s owned by somebody,” Will said, and consciously stopped himself from further repetition, much the same way he had forced his legs from continuing to make circles. He laid the bike on the ground, camouflaged it with some brush, and crouched behind some big rock until confident the coast was clear. Dusk’s ritual. Sometimes he didn’t breathe for more seconds than he ever thought he could ever stay underwater for when he was kid and he did that kind of stuff when he was alone.
Even with all the complicated zippers zipped Will woke in a panic. He tried to calm himself by concentrating on the tent’s mesh roof and gazed at the fragmented constellations that were dying in the sky’s nooks. Large insects, foreign, and somehow both translucent and colorful, heaved themselves against the tent, not convinced of the wide blue thing’s impenetrability. What he thought was a rock started to move as it beat like a tiny heart under the tent’s floor. It took a moment for Will to register that what moves is alive, and became certain it’s a toad or frog, but didn’t care to hold it or make escape feasible.
Will lay naked. His sleeping bag and clothes were soaked through after having traversed the last half of the Natchez Trace Parkway and into the heart of Cajun Louisiana during a steady downpour that lasted for app. 52 miles according to his little computer gizmo. Waterproof as an adjective is a fallacy, no matter what they say. Nothing was worse than a wet sleeping bag; it could take a week to dry. Sometime around the six-week mark Will’s trip had turned into a lifestyle and his dreams repeated themselves with the same authority and predictability as the never-ending blacktop.
He reached for someone who wasn’t there. A hippie girl who worked the canteen at some state park. She had sat and stared at the constant and amorphous fire as Will battled all of insectdom and put up the tent. Not once did she complain about the flies or even wave her hand in front of her face. Her clothes were balled up in a corner and smelled of campfire, much like Will’s, but different in ways that he was glad for. It added a certain domesticity to the tent, these woman clothes. The couple had engaged in not that bad, quick sex, automatically being aware of each other’s genitals and agreeing through touch that to rush to the finish line was permitted without guilt’s snags. Whether this had to do with Will’s and the hippie girl’s ideas on how sex ought to be, or the entangled tenters were wary of the roots and rocks and who knew how many little dead toads or frogs under their naked backs, was uncertain. The mesh tent roof got so mixed up with the stars Will couldn’t tell fore- from background.
They had made little gestures to each other that could outlast some of love’s longer more drawn-out moments that had taken place in Will’s last life, and had always resulted in an uneventful break-up, a sort of sigh and a wave good-bye. Will hadn’t got on top of her, sparing her back stabs by rocks and roots, and a possible rash that could come from a well-used moldy tent. And she, in turn, not only went down on Will, but did so worshipfully. Or so it had seemed to Will from her crouched position and her ass in the air like some naughty nun at the foot of the altar itching for it - which may have had more to do with the lack of space in the tiny one-man tent then anything else. But the nun thing wasn’t lost on Will. He liked to watch the hippie girl do her thing down there, as long as her eyes were closed.
Now she was gone; her, her bike, her equipment. Yet she left her hippie clothes behind and Will didn’t understand why. She was no longer hippie and the image of her riding naked on the cracked roads above the complex bayou system immune to the hordes of insects - ranging from midge to giant and prehistoric – pedaling calmly through the dark deep night, was clear enough for Will to make it to the red circle on his map called Independence, Texas. Will preferred the more humble and not as obvious red circles to the emboldened red dots. But then again, had spent more time then one would think wondering who decided and why on the manner of these dots and circles.
“Yep, I know the place. Independence Texas’s about 300 miles the crow flies.” At least that’s what the big Louisianan said at the Po’ Boy stand. From the moment the big, extroverted man had invited Will over to the picnic table, Will decided he wasn’t to be trusted. He had two chins and never put down his crawfish po’ boy and his side of the table buckled under all that weight. He asked too many questions. And especially when he said, “Boy, round here that’s what we call a vaga-bond.” The stinger that made Will’s throat contract and he was therefore neither able to talk nor eat.
Southern/central Louisiana is a mystical region. The trees are more tree; the branches branchier. It’s come to be an unknown place for outsiders, mostly because of the allure of New Orleans’ myth and on-going party. The people are so welcoming that it puts any tourist friendly philosophy to shame. Whereas some touristy-area radiates an aura of “Welcome, here you can be whoever you want, we promise not to care either way,” in southern Louisiana’s Cajun Country the openness of the people demands that the random outsider or extremely rare tourist be himself. If the trees are so much what they are as to become even more tree than tree, then the people should follow in tote, no? Native southern/central Louisianans naturally understand mysticism. The exaggeration of truth.
Will pedaled more ferociously through Cajun Country than any other part of his trip. He didn’t notice the sugar cane crushed into the road. He biked past a handful of outdoor festivals celebrating culture through dance and oral story telling without even so much as a turn of his head. A single tiny baby shoe in the middle of the road was rushed past without the slightest tinge of sadness for all that is gentle and weak. Even in Mammou, where all those in the know come for the original, rural-version of Mardi Gras, Will whizzed through as if it was just another place with people like all others. He rode past a diner with a sign hung up in plain view that said FREE COFFEE FOR TRAVELERS. He rode ferociously through Cajun Country and passed time by filling that thoughtful place inside with the pure desire to push forth, and when that kind of concentration couldn’t be held up, he simply stared at his computer gizmo; his average speed, maximum speed, daily distance traveled, total distance, these black digital numbers entertained him the same way the TV in the kitchen-less rented room of that St. Louis roe house had. One day of riding: 116 miles. He set his tent up on the sandy bank of the Sabine River; the TX/LA border.
Will liked cold water. His blood halted. He was alone, felt alone, and stood in the river turning over rocks. He waited for the water to settle in the little pools formed in the recesses left behind by the discarded rocks. He scooped up some pebbles and water and river bottom in his hand and pushed through the stuff until he isolated the soon to be flying insects in their various life forms. He began to collect crayfish, tiny ones, with tiny pinchers that desperately dug into his left hand as his right hand gathered up more. Will collected the mess of crayfish and placed them in the hippie girl’s tye dye shirt. It looked like some living plate of shellfish that might be delivered to a round wooden table at a bayside restaurant that had lunch specials and served two for one drafts in cold frosty mugs.
Will decided against boiling up the ancient critters, which was amazing actually, considering that he hadn’t eaten anything since his lunch had been interrupted by the two-chinned friendly man at the picnic table. He tied the sleeves of the tye dye shirt together and stuck it in the river with a well chosen rock to keep it in place.
The dream repeated the day. Will was in his tent and on his bike and somehow stuffed into his saddlebags. The Will being towed was heavier than the Will towing. Insects banged hard against the tent walls and stars fell through the mesh roof’s diamonds. Saddlebag Will asked Bicycle Will if he didn’t eat the crayfish because someone had told him he’s a scoundrel and didn’t deserve such a meal, or if being a scoundrel was just generally how he felt people had felt about him, or if it wasn’t true at all and Dreaming Will/Bicycle Will had just decided life would be easier if he thought of himself as a scoundrel. Dreaming Will/Bicycle Will denied all accusations and informed Saddlebag Will that “scoundrel” wasn’t a word he even used. Crayfish crawled up the outside of the tent making a noise like a fork against teeth. The fat two-chinned man from the picnic table stood straight up, monstrously, in a tent that Will could barely sit up in without his head brushing against the top. Lettuce and mayonnaise dribbled down the corners of the fat man’s mouth. Dreaming Will/Bicycle Will told the fat man that a naked woman is riding through the night and we’ve got to save her from the gators. Saddlebag Will laughed and said, “You’ve got enough weight to worry about, Vaga-bond.” The fat man said, “Good one.” Zippers zipped all around the tent, all surround-sound like, constant zippers zippering, and a million forks scratched against one set of teeth. Crayfish crawled into the tent and up the body of the fat man and began to eat the lettuce and mayonnaise from the sides of the fat man’s mouth. Dreaming Will/Bicycle Will turned towards Saddlebag Will and promised on all his dead relatives that he would gladly ride forever with whatever weight Saddlebag Will felt necessary rather than be back in the tent. Saddlebag Will laughed and said, “Vaga-bond,” over and over again, “Vaga-bond.”
Will had once sat by that muddy river in St. Louis and drank a bottle of cheap red wine that he bought with his last $5. A homeless man emerged from the dirt piles and machines that said CATERPILLAR and little houses that were bathrooms or offices for men with hard hats. He had no teeth and played the harmonica. His feet were bloated almost beyond all human recognition and the skin up to his ankles wasn’t skin at all but layers of raw pink eczema. He had red spots on his hands and smelled like feces. He nodded to Will and smiled in a way that was true. He played the harmonica. Will was indifferent to his presence. The homeless man said, “You wanna pass that there bottle here.” Will said, “No,” and left the homeless man who had emerged from the deserted construction site all alone by the river, alone.
Will distrusted his dreams, which is natural for a drunk, because they’re not used to having them, or at least remembering them. Will hadn’t had a drop of alcohol for weeks, and in that time had dreamt like he’d never dreamt before. It was more shock and confusion rather than fear that Will felt upon waking after these dreams. Usually all it would take were short, intense shakes of his head to forget the night’s half images. Morning mist rose from the tremulous water and Will got a few slices of bread down and crumpled up the rest and fed it to the silvery minnows that waded in a safe pool before they decided to go up or down river.
It was never Will’s intention to ride directly to the red circle called Independence, Texas, but past it, to its outskirts, to some river, or dried up river bed, or to the woods off some secondary road, where he’d set up his tent, battle the flies, and wait for the light of the next day. But a spoke popped, then another, and his back tire started to look less and less like a circle with every ten miles traveled. He needed a bike shop, the back tire needed to be trued.
The man working at the bike shop in Independence was totally impressed with Will’s trip. He asked Will about where he’s been, what he’d seen, the people he’d met. Will was at a loss how to answer these questions and in an unaffected way said something about sunsets. The bike shop owner looked at Will as if trying to decide if he could be trusted, and said, “Well, we’ll get her back on the road as soon as we can.” He always said “we,” even though he worked alone: “we’ll see you now” or “we’ll see what we can do” or “yep, we’ve been fixin on bikes for as long as we can remember.” Then he took from his back pocket a handkerchief that was stained with black oily splotches, and with what to Will seemed an unattainable dignity blew his nose.
Will took a place at the diner across the street. Forks rattled against plates. Behind the counter the entrance to the kitchen was in full view. The dishwasher joked and worked and for a moment lowered his voice slightly to explain something that maybe wasn’t suitable for the customers to hear, then he laughed largely and the other kitchen workers did too. The waitress looked tired, but pleasant, and radiated a certain humor in things big and small. On the other side of the counter was a man who looked like he could be the bike shop owner’s brother. He worked the grill with a dexterity and concentration that even Will noticed and admired. The grill was loaded down with eggs and bacon and sausage and a little deep pan sat in the upper right corner that was filled with melted butter. Maestro shoveled orders onto warm plates, dinged a bell, yelled “Order Up,” and the plate traveled a few steps to its destination.
Everything was clear. Everyone had purpose. Will enjoyed his meal. His coffee too. When he lifted the cup to his mouth, he did so calmly, easily, without shaking.
600 miles later, in San Marcos, Texas, Will ate extra pancakes at an all-you-can- eat pancake joint. The waitress had long black hair and big eyes. Will wandered around downtown Marcos until the big eyed waitress got through with her shift. They went back to Will’s campsite. A crowded place with tents and RVs and kids playing on the swings and a pool that was too warm to swim in. The waitress gave Will some bananas and a back massage. She handed him her address, and Will, slightly ashamed, said, “I won’t give you mine so it forces me to write you first.”
Fifty miles outside of Big Lake, Texas, Will stayed at another campground, one filled with Vietnam Vets who lived there year round. More like a community than a campground. The Vets drank beer with their wives close by and their few children playing who knew what games in the woods behind the fire pit. The Vets got drunk - in that experienced, not sloppy type of way - and were mostly happy as Will listened to their stories and then offered to be in charge of the hot dogs and hamburgers.
Eighty-five miles east of Roswell, New Mexico, Will wept for reasons he wasn’t exactly sure about.
Sometime after he crossed into Roswell, Will wrote simply and shortly in a black marble notebook that he’d bought at a gas station: “Despair is not having a home when you think you do.”
Somewhere outside Santa Fe, Will watched two separate and distinct storms far, far away. The sun began its decent. That night he slept alone in his dry sleeping bag outside the tent.
© Marc Gulezian Nov 3rd 2010
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