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• Johnathan Garner
I would talk to the plants, and they would talk to me. It was simple back then.

A light breeze often circles the fields of tobacco crops, stirring up the heat, and playing tricks on tired afternoon- eyes. At ground level, small irrigation channels can be traced across the fields. They carve innumerable routes across the baked soil, winding loosely clustered molecules of water around the plants, in search of hidden roots, a chance for solace from the burning sun. But the ground looks too tough to absorb any moisture now. It’s been a long summer, and where snow melt once drenched the earth, the sun has fired it a new veneer. The late afternoon light is strongest of all, and when it shines its brightest, the world seems to stop and rest a minute. Around this time of year, the bushes have grown so tall and thick that the red soil beneath is usually cloaked from view. If the wind picks up a little more, the delicate leafy heads of the bushes are parted in this direction and that. Unevenly, yet perfectly. Vivid green washes punctuated by faltering red lines, joined up again by more substantial clumps of red.

Not very many people are lucky enough to see this momentary sculpture of the earth. Only me, because my guest lodge is at the peak of a gentle hill, and the crop sprayers, who pass over in their funny looking aircraft from time to time.

From the very closest point in the foreground to the limits of the horizon, the landscape looks identical. Of course it isn’t really. Every square foot is reacting to its own unique circumstances. Beneath the soil, a very long way down, the earth is at war with itself. This war has lasted forever, and yet it’s only just begun. Nearer the surface, conflict is decided much quicker. Heroic struggles rage between the insects, the plants and the chemicals sent to kill them. Battles won and lost on a minute by minute basis. But back up here, a peaceful calm drifts over us effortlessly. Up here, the conflict is over.

Before I moved to the city, when I was still a young child, I used to sit and talk to the plants down in the fields. At that time my father ran the farm, which consisted of low-grade tobacco grown for a local factory, and a lodge, which back then was just a small guesthouse where no-one ever stayed. My mother would bring in most of the money. She worked in the nearest town as a water-filtration saleswoman, and earned more than enough to fortify my father’s weakening income. So there I sat, listlessly drifting through my summer days when school was out, with no-one much to play with but myself. When I needed them, the thick foliage of the plants would provide me with a bunch of imaginary friends and enemies around every corner. I would run and hide amongst them, listening closely to the rustling of leaves for clues to their whereabouts. I would talk to the plants, and they would talk to me. It was simple back then.

As the sun falls faster, fields turn green to gold and the birds flock home to roost. When my mother died young from a skin cancer that spread to her lungs, we were forced to move north to Apalachin, New York. My father took work as a mechanic, employing the skills he acquired with farm machinery on the trucks that rested there, before thundering their way back towards the southern states. I was sent to school in the City, where I would board all week and return only at weekends. Six years later I started college, and gradually weekends became months, months became years. My father died when I was 28. I never did go back to Apalachin after that. Instead I came here.

Neil was making good time down Interstate 95. The weather so far had been fine, and at this rate he was going to arrive much earlier than he expected. If he got there before dusk he reckoned, there would be ample time to head straight over to the nearby town and pay Karl a visit. He always enjoyed the ritual of rolling up on Karl, their fond greetings, and the chance to look around the garden before heading back up the hill. Karl was a very proud gardener, and Neil always felt obliged to take the guided tour of the new plants, checking them for size and potency, before making his selection and retreating to the dining room, where Karl would weigh out a finely dried specimen from the previous crop. It was a pleasure to do business with Karl, who was more than just a good friend.

Alone in the cockpit, Neil was perfectly content in his thoughts. He enjoyed the isolation of trucking. The hours upon hours of solitary one-way conversation gave him time to make sense of things. He often felt as if by the time he got wherever he was going, he would have a million interesting things to say. A lock-up full of thoughts and feelings ready to unload. Only sometimes, he got so liquored that he just talked shit like the others. But Neil was different. Not because he was gay, for that was becoming less and less uncommon in his profession, but because he had such a wider perspective than most of the other guys on the road. This was one reason why he loved staying at Sam’s place. Neil and Sam had the kind of bond that people on the same wavelength make without any effort.

Neil had first met Sam ten years ago, when she was still a beautiful straw-mouthed country girl thrown to the sharp teeth of the city. Neil was at that time a painter. He had arrived in New York hoping to squeeze his way onto the scene, pushing his work to the right people until a gallery would take him up for a last minute weekend show that would turn into a summer marathon, his first step to fortune and acclaim. By the time Neil met Sam, he was redecorating her newly rented apartment in Brooklyn as a favor from a small local firm that never had enough work on to employ him full-time. Sam was in her third year of college, and was fast becoming one of the most intelligent students in her class. Neil knew this because unlike most liberal studies students, she didn’t try to sound too clever. Sometimes, it felt like Sam could put into words what Neil had tried to put on canvas. They would waste the afternoons in coffee shops while Sam would talk about papers she couldn’t be bothered to write, and Neil would sketch on napkins the paintings he would never paint.

Of course, there was another reason he loved staying at Sam’s place. In fact why most people loved staying at Sam’s place had very little to do with the conversation.
Neil was so proud of Sam when he heard about her lodge. He had been away, hauling his reefer full of fresh goods up and down the Californian coastline when he ran into a trucker who told him about this new place back East. It was strictly a word of mouth thing Neil was told, but once you were in…well, you had to see it to believe it. When he did see it, the words that sprang to Neil’s mouth were graces, a thank you note for his prayers. Here was a place where his paintings came alive. Everything was for sale. Sex, drugs, books, toys, videos, rubber, plastics, creams, restrictors, rings, hooks, anything at all. There were no rules it seemed, only choices. Now Neil wasn’t a shy boy by nature. Anyone could tell you that. But when he first arrived at Sam’s place, even he didn’t know where to look.

It was Sam that had first suggested trucking to Neil. She did so years ago while they sat under the bridge one day and talked about how the city made you feel closeted in. Neil didn’t take her seriously at first, the image alone of his slim body ratting around the cab of an articulated vehicle made him feel faintly embarrassed. But gradually, as Sam recited the stories her father had told back in Apalachin, the idea grew on him. Freedom and space were two things Neil wasn’t sure he understood. He’d never lived outside a city, and it seemed like a good way to find out what the rest of America was really like.

As Neil rounded the exit lane from the highway he turned up the baseball on the radio. He’d always been a big fan, and being gay had never stopped him going to games or hanging out in sports bars. All those macho men with tattoos on their necks and finely sculpted torsos were a bonus as far as he was concerned. But in the cab was probably still Neil’s favorite place to catch a game. Alone, Neil loved to transport himself out of the driving seat for a while and onto the plate. He pictured himself in a red and white shirt with gray pants, tweaking his stiff-peaked cap slightly to one side to eliminate the glare. He would grind his toes into the dust and spit into the ground, slowly rotating the bat in his hands while the pitcher wound up his arm. He heard the roar of the crowd rising to the clean sound of leather on wood, and off he set, his skinny legs pumping up and down towards first base.

Natan was still some miles back, filling up at a gas station and slurping on a hot coffee. He looked around him. There was nothing much to see. A few dogs lurked around the station, filling up themselves on scraps that the garbage men left behind. It was a desperate place, and Natan was impatient to get back on the road. But he was also hungry, so he set off across the tarmac towards the diner for something quick to settle his stomach.

Natan had taken a train to Trenton as soon as he arrived in the United States. His brother Liuz, who was seven years his senior, had lived there ever since he made the move from Poland the previous fall. Neither of them had real social security numbers, but that didn’t seem to matter much. His brother took him through the initial acclimatization process. He counseled Natan on how to conceal his status from the authorities, helped him get some ID, a drivers license, bank account, that sort of thing, and generally eased him into American life with out too much fuss. Luckily, Natan spoke good English, so that wouldn’t be the problem it had been for his brother, who was a bit slow in that department. His brother was a trucker too, and it was expected that he would help Natan find work. Within a few weeks, Liuz had fitted Natan up with a rig on loan from a local guy he didn’t really know and found him some contract work down south. It was amazing, thought Natan, how simple it had all been. He could have done this years ago. Instead he had trailed all over mainland Europe, struggling to find the best paid work, but being cut off from most of it by domestic drivers who needed the money as much as he did.

Now he was in America he knew all this would change. He remembered how his brother had described it to him on the telephone. The clubs, the cash, the clothes, and most of all the women. Ah! How they fell to his knees for just a whisper of that accent! Well, Natan didn’t really believe Liuz’s inflated stories, who he was sure only a mother could love, but that didn’t discourage him for a moment. He knew he was the good looking one of the family. He was taller, stronger, and had the kind of muscle bound physique the chicks died for. What was more he had the gift of the gab. Natan would spin them one of his lines, something about their eyes, their lips, their perfume, whatever it took. But he always got them in the end. Why would it be any different here? It wouldn’t, he agreed with himself. He was ready for some of that prime American ass his brother was always boasting about. Only for him it wouldn’t be the stuff of exaggeration or make-believe. He would really get some.

So when his brother told him about a secret truckers stop on the way through North Carolina, a place where you could get a women cheap for the night, Natan couldn’t help but laugh. Pay for it? Ha! Sure he’d used those kind of places a couple of times back home, but only when there was nothing else on offer. And even then he wasn’t sure if he had ever really paid had he? Probably not. Ha! They probably paid him! His brother tried to explain that this place wasn’t like the places back home. This was a high class affair run by some hippy-type chick, a real stunner with legs up to her armpits who, Liuz assured him, "wouldn’t get the shits from nobody."

Liuz tried to describe the scene to Natan. There were, said Liuz, all kinds of weird shit going on: Men dressed like women getting it on with other men, good looking women (who were actually men) with women who looked like men, women with good looking men (who were actually women), even ugly looking men with good looking women (who really were women). Add to that the weed, the e, the acid, the coke, of course the booze, mix it up with blistering, throbbing dance music and, as Liuz put it, "you can’t tell your elbow from your asshole." But Natan wasn’t really listening anymore. He told his brother, "I don’t need to pay for that. Most women take one look at me and it’s over. They know what they want."

"But listen," Natan pressed his brother, "tell me more about this hippy chick, she sounds interesting." Liuz told his brother the truth. She wouldn’t be impressed by his arrogant bullshit act he said. And she certainly wouldn’t give a shit if Natan told her she had nice teeth or hair. But Natan was adamant, he would go to this place and have this woman. She would be his first conquest in this new land. So Liuz dropped the subject, he knew it was pointless to argue with his brother when he was in this kind if mood.

Back on the road, Natan looked up and shook his head free from his day-dream, the heat reflecting from the asphalt road had pushed the temperature inside the cab to nearly 100 degrees. The a/c had packed up several hundred miles ago so Natan cracked open a window to let some fresh air in. The view from his windscreen hadn’t really altered much over the past hour or so, and Natan was feeling irritable, nauseous from the heat, and just generally pissed off with himself. He began to wonder if he’d missed it altogether.

Over by the coffee tables, the area that served as a kind of lobby-come-living room, two guys sat reading their papers and taking the occasional sip of jasmine tea. Samantha looked over to them and smiled to herself. They looked so at home, sitting there in their open toes sandals and embroidered cotton shirts, whispering to each other intimate little jokes that only they would find funny. These two had been here for three days now, and Samantha had come realize that they weren’t truckers at all, they had somehow heard about her place and decided it was the perfect spot for a short break.

The fresh mid-morning air blew in over the fields and through the open French-windows, lifting the stale smells clean out of the furniture and walls, which had seen it all before. The scene was such a contrast to last night, when a whole bunch of the guys had decided to design some kind of drinking game that paired them off in a variety of directions, partners, and performances. This kind of behavior was something Samantha had to keep a careful eye on. Even in her place, she reasoned, you had to have rules. Of course, it was up to them to do whatever with whoever, but Samantha was keen to maintain common areas as places where everyone, gay, straight or whatever, could relax and enjoy the anticipation of another the evening ahead without feeling either too strongly part of, or excluded from, any particular group.

She watched as Mitch hovered in front of the men, before stooping to collect the tray and return it to the kitchen. She was pleased with the way Mitch had fitted into her way of doing things so easily. It couldn’t be easy for him she thought, a trucker of 40 years whose eyes had gradually worsened to the extent that the DMV revoked his license. She was glad to have him on the team as a chef, his new vocation had given him a new lease of life it seemed. The rest of the gang included the cleaning lady from Virginia, who Samantha was sure had no idea what went on, and Micki, a local girl who came over in the evenings to work the cash register in the toyshop. Sales had doubled under Micki, who had just the cutest way of demonstrating how each product was operated, the obvious pitfalls, and often came up with some inspired new ways to use them.

Back when she renovated the lodge and first opened for business, Samantha had run the entire place by herself, including the famous home-cooked meals. The popularity of the place had surprised Samantha to begin with. Back then, Samantha worked the kitchen as a buffet style service, including the meals in the room prices, and opened the bar as soon as the food was out. During the day she would clean the rooms, most of which the guys kept in real nice shape anyway, and pick through the catalogs ticking off boxes on the fax-back form, which would keep the shop stocked with all the latest and best new toys. Fresh food deliveries arrived every other day, and Samantha rarely had to run across to town for last minute extras. Except of course, if the drugs were late.

Samantha had used the same guy from California for years, a friend from college who had established himself a comfortable connection with one of the more reticent druglords of the West coast. He was willing to supply typical goods such as coke, e, heroin, acid, and weed at low cost, provided he didn’t have to ship it himself. So one or two of Samantha’s best customers formed a supply line, dragging a few boxes over whenever their travels took them that way. If the chain ever did break down, which still occasionally happened, she would call in on Karl and see what he had, but this was more of a last resort as Karl was more of a Homes and Gardens man than a businessman.

By 5pm, Samantha hadn’t quite recovered from her afternoon snooze on the couch, and so she jumped when Neil strolled excitedly through the salon doors. They embraced like old friends do, without clumsiness or uncertainty, and swept over to the bar for a stiff gin and tonic. Neil told Samantha about his day, everything from the way the rain dried up in South Carolina to how his stereo had chewed his favorite Pearl Jam tape. He really missed her sometimes he told her. Although of course he refused to get a phone installed in the cab, because then she could call him at anytime, and that would get annoying.

Samantha probed his personal life again, did he meet anyone special this time? But he gave the same answer as usual. "Nothing doing." It seemed like all his boyfriends had found new lovers, had settled down even, whilst he just went on from fling to fling. He knew it had something to do with his occupation these days, but it was something else too. He couldn’t bear to be in one of those ever-so-thoughtful relationships, where it was all fancy European food, designer bath mats and fashion accessories. Neil was a man’s man, in every sense of the word. He wanted a man who he could sit down and watch a ball game with, sink a few beers and crack a few crude jokes, before retiring to their room to ball each other out. Well, it just didn’t seem to be happening right now. He’d almost forgotten what it felt like to… Samantha laughed, well, she knew what he meant.

"I know what you’re thinking," Natan said at the bar that evening, "you are liking what you see."
Samantha looked on, she felt a bit sick from the alcohol and this guy leering at her breasts wasn’t helping. She flicked a withering look towards Neil who was propping up the bar, they both quite drunk by now. "Hang on Samantha," Neil said, "let’s give our friend here a chance to explain himself." He started to giggle as he caught Samantha’s eyes rolling. He turned to face him. "Take a seat stranger," he said, What’s your story? Where are you from with that kind of accent?"
"Ah," said Natan, "I have traveled many miles, over many lands far and wide, searching for a beauty such as this." He pointed towards Samantha, who looked down at the floor for no good reason. "But now I find her and she cannot speak. Ah, the irony is like poison to my heart. Such fair hair, those eyes shining like crystals, those lips the softest pillow of roses where a man might lay his weary head. But oh! Locked tight they are, in the cruelest hand fate ever dealt. It’s true, she cannot tell me how she feels."

Samantha passed a beer across the bar towards the man. Natan accepted the glass, lingering over her hand as she placed it besides his. "I will come again for you my sweet," he declared, "I think you need some time." And with that he spun dramatically on the spot, and turned back towards the group with whom he was drinking. They were playing some kind of card game, like poker but different, and this new guy was winning quite a lot by the look of it. Around the table sat a mixture of faces, some she recognized, others she did not. The ones she did were mainly the check shirt and jeans guys that passed through, the ones that complained at the price of the cheapest girls, and didn’t go much for the drugs. They were her worst customers in one sense, meatheads who didn’t appreciate the trouble she went to finding the right balance for her lodge. But they were bread and butter money, and harmless enough, certainly since word spread of the beating the last homo-basher got from her boys.

Samantha noticed how, as the man sat down to rejoin the table, he poured a little white spirit from a flask into his beer. So that’s how he was getting that way so fast she thought, he’d spent little at the bar. Another reason, she reminded herself, to put up the prices again.
"Jesus Christ," she cried to Neil, "I can’t stand the ones that think they’ll get a freebie from the owner. Like I’m part of the room rate or something." Neil laughed, "I hear ya," he said, "but kind of cute don’t you think?"
"Oh good Lord! Are you serious Neil? I mean really? Well if that’s the kind you’re into these days, be my guest."
"Are you kidding," Neil replied, "those guys aren’t really the type for experimentation if you know what I mean."
They laughed together and Neil turned back to face Samantha. He wished sometimes he could’ve kept pretending to be straight, but it just wasn’t meant to be. He just couldn’t find her attractive in that way. It didn’t matter anyhow, being this close to someone was worth more than any of that.
They talked and drank, reminiscing about the old days, and keeping a close eye on the man who had burst in on them, wondering what he would do next. Out in the fields, the crops had settled down for the night, the wind dropping to a whisper. Karl had put his plants to bed, and after reading for a while with his feet in the electronic foot-spa, he put himself to bed. The towns people were at home, or in bars, or shopping, or whatever else they did. Up here though, it was different. By 10pm. the evening light had faded to black, and the party was in full swing again. Everybody was having a good time, and everyone was getting something they couldn’t get elsewhere. They felt young, and up here, they could pretty much do whatever they wanted.

© Johanthan Garner

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