We rode our bikes through the mid-morning heat and after an hour we departed from the wide dirt road and onto a small path that slinked through the thick mix of juniper and prickly pear on the desert plane.
Before long we rode to the edge of a vast and ancient wash. Four hundred yards below a coyote lapped at the edges of a large brown pool of water and the breeze carried the smell of the hot desert summer; that of wild mustard plant and steaming yucca needles.
We stood on the trail watching the coyote.
You think he’ll come after us, Chris said looking onward.
Nah, he’ll probly run off once we start a’headin down. He already knows we’re here.
The trail heading down into the wash was tight and sandy requiring the both of us to walk our bicycles over the sand and rocks. It flattened for a bit and we rode on the edge of the trail so we wouldn’t get stuck in the sand and we rolled off a small shoulder-hill and down the rest of the way into the wash; coming to rest at the water hole.
Like I expected the coyote had run off and we saw him trotting up the other side; a spirit of the land, stopping every so often to look down at us. Chris stood at the muddy edge of the pool amongst the animal droppings and old tires. I threw a rock into the pool and Chris skipped one across the surface.
Too bad it’s so dirty—I could go for a swim right now.
You don’t want to swim in that—couldn’t anyway. It’s probly no more than a few feet deep in the middle.
Chris threw another rock and said, Yeah—maybe five feet max—you dare me to ride through this part?
He stood at a muddy corner no more than a foot deep and ten feet across and he tossed a small rock into its center to check the depth.
Sure, I shrugged.
He mounted his BMX bike and started down a trail heading due South and turned with a slide at a hundred feet or so down the trail. He stood straddling the bike in the middle of the trail and waved his hands.
Chris stood and mashed the peddles; his short arms pumped the handlebars from side to side leaving a skinny line of dust behind him that waved in the mirage that clung to the ground. When he got closer I could hear him huffing and puffing; his face beat-red looking like some kind of wild adolescent demon animal.
He stopped peddling when he got close to the edge and he lifted his arms and legs bringing the bike into the air as if he were going to try to jump over the watery span, but with no ramp, jump, or anything to help his trajectory.
The tires skimmed the surface then splashed down in the middle, sending a wave of brown water and mud forward into the air. At the end of the wave I saw his ankles flying through the air where his head should have been, and the outline of the bike stood still and the water came crashing down; water, mud, and Chris.
He landed on his back at the edge of the pool and rose from the water coughing and spitting the foul water from his mouth. Cursing and waddling he plopped down on the sand beside me and we observed his bike standing up; perfectly erect, peddles deep in the mud.
I collapsed in laughter as he shamefully retrieved his bike from the mud and he emerged from the pool covered in water and sludge; looking like a squat adobe shack.
I continued to laugh as he returned to the sand and sat down.
Mother fucker, he said shaking his head. Small chunks of mud and sand fell from his back.
Dude—you almost made it, I said through my laughter.
Noon time found us sitting in the shade of an enormous Gambel oak. I sat on a berm emptying the sand from my shoes. Chris was stripped down to his mud-stained underwear laying his shirt and shorts out on a large rock to dry.
He walked back up to the tree; his skinny pale body was all stained the color of his underwear and darker drips were dried on his face and legs like brown paint. He waddled over joining me on the berm.
You wanna turn back, I said squinting in the dry heat.
Nah, we’ll keep going. I’ll be fine—just gotta dry my clothes out a little at least. Where you want to go?
Don’t know—thought we would cross the tracks down yonder to the south and head up towards the highway.
Sounds fine to me, Chris said watching his clothes dry in the sun, I aint got shit to do.
And, we sure didn’t. It was the summer break between our sixth and seventh years in school. We would often run off on our bikes all day exploring the desert. We never really looked for anything in particular, just explored.
Chris and I had been friends since we were born; our mothers being best friends. We were born a year and three months apart; Chris being the senior, but I was quite a bit taller and thicker. We grew up on the same street, and attended the same school.
Our dads ran off around the same time too; Chris’s mother told him he joined the army, but everyone knew that wasn’t true. She found him out back hanging from their old Ponderosa pine.
My dad took off to California. He sent me gifts on my birthday and Christmas the first two years, but then they stopped coming and so did the phone calls. I guess it’s all the same they weren’t around. Texas had no use for them, and neither did we.
Chris and kept each other company while our moms danced down at the bar. We didn’t have anyone to take us fishing, hunting, or any of that stuff we saw on the TV. We did stuff our way. It was the only way we knew how.
The sky was clear and the color of turquoise; small in the distance was a murder of ravens riding the thermals that spiraled upward from the desert floor. We sat there on the berm for thirty minutes or so before Chris walked down to the rocks to retrieve his clothes. The fronts were dry, but the backsides were still damp and mud clung to them still; dried and cracked.
We rode out to the south, still in the ribcage of the wash; Chris looking like a statue made of pumice breaking apart as it became animate. We walked our bikes up the steep trail that flanked the railroad tracks as it crossed the wash before they sunk once again into long trenches on either side; dug I imagine to keep the track level as it crossed the rolling desert.
Standing high on the railroad tracks we overlooked the waterhole far below.
Check it out, I said pointing to the corner of the waterhole. Darker fresh mud could still be seen in a starburst pattern radiating far from the bank.
What were you thinking pulling up on your bike like that, I asked.
He looked down into the valley. Dried mud still caked his hair and it hung like yarn.
No idea, he said continuing on; pushing his bike over the course gravel on the side of the tracks. I followed close behind.
I think that was y’er problem, I laughed.
He turned around with a big muddy smile and said, Pretty funny though.
Got that right.
We followed the tracks into the side of the hill and the vertical sides of the trench loomed down on us. The farther we ventured into the trench, the less chance we had of ever escaping in the presence of a train, but still we continued on. We looked over our shoulders every so often to watch for trains and even though there were none, we hurried our steps anyway. When the trench receded down to waist high we walked up over the side and into a small clearing.
On the top of another small hill we headed North again and onto a high desert plane thick with juniper trees. Then we heard the train passing.
Chris looked at me and motioned like he was wiping his brow in relief. I acknowledged him and we pressed on.
Chris and I mounted our bikes and rode single file on a narrow trail that disappeared into a juniper grove; our peddles slapping the hot leaves of the mustard and Mormon tea plants and we carried with us the smell of the desert summer.
The air hung still in the grove. Small birds chirped; quarreling in the ragged thickets and cicadas buzzed all around like downed power lines. The junipers became brown and singed before we entered a clearing surrounded by the dead and burnt junipers and there was a half burnt down trailer home in the center. Parked to its side was a pick-up truck that was burned down to bare metal and pooling plastic.
We rode through a corner of the clearing to the trail on the other side. Chris peddled up beside me and we stopped a little ways past the clearing.
Hey man, he said, we should go back.
Because—there could be someone in there. Or somthin else—who knows what.
I laughed in an attempt to belittle him, Yes—I know fucknose. That’s why I don’t want to go back. It’s obviously a meth lab or some shit. I aint messin with no dopers.
I watched him set his bike down and he started into the bushes; motioning for me to follow, C’mon fucker, he said, let’s just go and have a look.
I reluctantly followed him between two junipers and we moved on an animal path through the lower lying brush until we could see the trailer between the spans of trees. We crouched for a moment and listened before moving forward toward the trailer.
Chris lead the way as we purposefully lined ourselves up with the brush as to avoid being seen from the trailer, and once the gap was closed we were hunched over just beneath the only unbroken window on the backside of the trailer. Chris put his hand down over a scattering of ashes that had fallen from underneath the trailer.
Its warm, he said looking up at me; his hand still hovering over the ashes.
Of course it’s warm—everything’s warm. It’s a hundred and ten degrees out.
I stooped down and held my hand where he had his, and I could feel it as well, Yup—fire hasn’t been out for long.
This discovery did nothing to ease my nerves. Chris crept around the back side of the trailer that wasn’t burned and I followed close behind. I concentrated on my ears and I listened for any stirring about. When we reached the other side of the trailer we could see fully the damage that had been done.
The far side of the trailer had blown out sending various charred items out into the clearing with aluminum shrapnel of varying sizes, and pink fiberglass insulation material. There were buckets stained with red phosphorous and black trash bags that had been ripped apart scattering empty bottles of ephedrine pills in the trees and all around.
There was a fire pit circled by melon sized river rocks in the center of the clearing and the lawn chairs that once sat around it were also blown against the trees with the pill bottles.
Told you it was a meth lab, I said kicking an empty ephedrine bottle. I added, Surprised the whole thing didn’t burn to the ground.
Yup, Chris said walking along the front of the trailer toward the front door that was slightly ajar.
I looked all around and didn’t see any fresh foot prints. I raised my head to see Chris opening the door.
He screamed as his body was pulled forward into the doorway and the door closed on his legs obscuring the rest of his body. It slammed onto his legs again and he kicked it away; banging the side of the trailer. I ran to him and just his legs could be seen kicking wildly; his screaming and a roar of some other voice filled the desert air.
I swung the door completely open and a man had Chris by the neck of his shirt. He breathed heavily through his groans and he lay on the floor pulling Chris into the burnt trailer. His legs looked like two melted candles and may have been stuck to the floor; his hair wet with sweat was pasted to his forehead. I wrapped my arms around Chris’s torso and pulled against the burnt man’s strength. His grip only further tightened and my 12 year old muscles were no match to his, even in his condition.
Chris used his other free hand to push and punch the man’s face and the man snapped at his fingers with his yellow teeth gnashing and snarling. And, all the while screaming, It was you—It was you.
I let go of Chris and he squirmed wildly; howling and screeching like a rabbit in the throws of impending death. I turned and ran to the fire pit and retrieved a cantaloupe sized chunk of sandstone. I pushed Chris to the side with my left elbow and threw the rock down on the man’s face, striking him square on the forehead.
Much to my surprise he didn’t let go right away. Instead he groaned and heaved deep in his chest and blood shot between his rotted teeth to the ceiling; covering Chris’s face and neck. I picked up the blood soaked rock once more and smashed it down, still holding it with both hands, directly into his gaping mouth.
Blood streamed from his ears and he loosened his grip on Chris; sending us both tumbling backward onto our backs.
We lifted ourselves to our elbows and Chris turned to face me; his heart thumping through his torn shirt. His face was wet with blood and mud irrigated with tears, like an Indian shaken with bittersweet victory.
He coughed and cursed catching his breath, and we both watched the blood drip through the burnt floorboards; usurped by the sand.
I rose first and offered a hand to Chris who was still quite shaken. He attempted to dust himself off but his efforts only smeared the blood further across his chest and he stood there looking around panting.
Is he dead, he said wiping the blood from his forehead.
I’m pretty sure he is—but I aint stick’n around to check.
He nodded and spat.
Just then a noise caught our ears and we turned in the direction of the main road. A column of dust filtered up through the trees. A motor roared near and the body of some vehicle clanked on its frame; making its way toward us.
Without a word we ran around the back of the trailer the same way we had arrived and grabbed our bikes and peddled feverishly down the trail away from the trailer and the unknown vehicle.
We made our way through the juniper grove until it broke to a field where the trail widened as it straitened. I could hear the sounds of old car doors slamming and shouts behind us, even over my own heart beating.
I caught up to Chris, who was leading the way, on a short downhill and passed him as we overcame a blind crest. The shadow of the crest was steep in the late afternoon and it hid a fallen Scrub oak which I struck at full speed.
I saw sky then dirt, and I was sent ass over teakettle down the trail like a rag doll. When I came to, Chris knelt over me looking over his shoulder, then down on me.
You okay, he said studying my face.
Nope, I struggled to say. My chest—
Chris moved his hands over my chest, Oh God. You broke your fucking collar bone—its all—man o’ man—I can see it from here—the right one—well your left one I guess.
I took a deep breath trying not to be too panicked. Look, I began solemnly, we have to get off this trail. They’re going to follow our bike tracks for sure. Help me up.
Chris now offered me his hand and I clinched my teeth tight as I was brought onto my feet. I motioned with my chin to a bundle of ocotillo a little ways off the trail and we walked, me with my left shoulder slung low, to the bushes.
Once under the cover of the brush Chris used his pocket knife to cut off my shirt from the back. He tied the sleeves together to make an impromptu sling, and I hung my arm in it close to my body. The sounds of the men shouting and things thrashing about could still be heard as we made our way back home avoiding the trails.
In the evening we walked along a ridge of sage brush. Our small tattered bodies cast long sweeping shadows over the red grassland, and our bicycles in true scale seemed to simply grow from our legs; our shadows moving across the land as one. We didn’t speak and even the birds hushed on our approach.
Nightfall found us a few miles outside of town, but still a long way to go home. It was far enough North that we saw it safe to ride on the trail so we caught the closest one heading our way and followed it till it glowed blue in the moon light.
Chris pulled his bike to the side and stopped.
How you holdin up?
My fucking chest and neck hurt so bad I could die. Arms aching too—throbbing like a som'bitch.
I think we better head into town. We’re so far out of our way now, we wouldn’t make it home by eleven.
And, my moms gunna turn a switch on my ass! How did you expect this all to go down? Did you think we was just gunna waltz into the house at this hour—covered in blood?
I didn’t expect none of this to go down Chris—it just did. Killed a man for Christ’s sake. Late or not late—blood or no blood. I gotta get home.
I was so pissed off but the pain kept me from raising my voice. Chris stood there wild eyed in the middle of the trail. I could make out a tear running down the gulches of his face. He turned and gripped his threaded hair letting out a guttural scream.
Holler’n aint gonna get you nowhere, I said calmly.
Holler’n? Chris said turning around, This trail aint gunna get us nowhere. You’re all broken up—I’m cold—you’re cold. This whole thing is way beyond what I can deal with right now. We need to be call’n the po’lice and you know it.
For what? So I can land my ass in jail Chris? So they can lock me up?
No ones gunna lock you up. Shit—you saved my life. God knows what would have happened if you wouldn’t have done that. Som’bitch may bitten off my face for all we know.
I stood there thinking about our choices. I could see a light glowing off in the distance.
You don’t think they’ll lock me up?
Hell no. There aint a sheriff in this town that would bring you in—at least not for permanent. You saved them some time the way I see it.
I looked again to the light glowing across the fields.
We broke trail and headed to the East walking through the high grass until we found a small trail that lead us to a paved road. Chris rode ahead in the middle of it, and I in the back with only one hand on the handle bars. After about an hour after we broke trail, we arrived at a gas station. We rode up to the front doors and leaned our bikes against the wall.
You wait out here, I said. If you see anyone lookin suspicious you just go ahead and take off okay?
Okay, he said leaning with his bike against the wall. The light really showed the condition we were in, and to the untrained eye someone might think we had been shipwrecked and Shanghaied for ages.
The man behind the counter was balding in his late thirties and wore a blue vest as a uniform. I made my way to the counter and he looked at me like trouble incarnate.
May I help you, the man said under his mustache.
Yes sir—you got a phone I can use, I asked setting my right palm on the counter. I got to call the po’lice.
Damn boy—what the hell happened to you?
Some stuff just a’happened and I need to call the po’lice.
Where’s your parents? You can’t be more than ten years old.
Their busy—now how about that phone?
The man mumbled something then produced a cordless phone from behind the counter and I dialed 911 with my thumb; holding the phone in the same hand.
When I walked back outside Chris was sitting up against the wall picking dried mud from the frame of his bike.
What did they say?
Said their sending a car down here to meat us.
What did you tell them?
Nothin—I said that there was an accident and I broke my collar bone and I’d tell’em the rest when they got down here.
You gunna tell’em the truth?
I figured I would. No sense piss’en off the good guys too.
Chris nodded and continued flaking the mud from his bike and I leaned on a newspaper stand; covering it with sweat and blood in the process.
After about fifteen minutes or so a sheriff car turned into the service station. It drove up along side of us and we both stood up. The window rolled down and the sheriff hung his head and elbow out of it.
Y’all the boys that called the po’lice?
Yes sir. That’s us, I said.
He looked at the both of us and said, Looks like y’all got hit by a train.
No sir, I said, But—we sure caught everything else.
The sheriff looked us over once more and said laughing, Yeah—I guess.
There is something—isn’t there?
When someone ends a life.
The word ‘change’ doesn’t really capture it.
Is that a word?
Maybe ‘mutate’ would be a better fit.
At any rate, that’s what happened to me; it’s what happens to a person after they have executed their most animalistic rights. To fly or fight. To die today, or put it off till some other time.
No one knows when.
I can’t even pick up a rock without think’n about that man in the trailer. It’s all I see. I feel his teeth shattering under that sandstone. And all the blood, God damned there was a lot—all gurgling in his throat. Dark blood, that made a foam all around his broken jaw, and the rock—like raspberry jello in a blender. Coughing and heaving, gurgling and spouting.
Somehow I think all that blood made me stronger later on. A 'right of passage' some might say.
Chris was a little more affected than me.
He was never right after that day in the fields—hell, no one was.
Guess things have a way of stick’n to some folks, others it just slides right off.
Last time I heard the name Christopher Wainscot was in the paper. I was turning the pages while I ate my breakfast down at Peggy’s Dinner on 3rd street. Paper says my childhood friend killed a man—a Marine in some shit-hole bar in Austin. Paper says he pleaded insanity. Shit, I know that’s right. Paper says he cried when the jury delivered their verdict. I don’t pay much attention to what the paper says these days.
Both our mothers came to pick us up from the po’lice station. Neither one of’um turned a switch on us. They just let us be. Thought they’d just be in the way I guess—let us work it out on our own. Just like everything else.
Po’lice did a pretty good job of keep’n the whole thing quiet. As it turns out the land was owned by Mr. Bradshaw the City Councilman. He was up for re-election, and didn’t need anything cloud’n up his name. But, for whatever the reason was; we come out clean.
Me and Chris, we stayed friends all the way up till high school let out. Few days after we graduated he packed up his shit and shipped out. Joined the Army—wanted to be a man. I told him there’s no sense and goin through all the trouble. There’s some gals down at the tavern that’ll take care of that real quick. But, he shipped out anyway.
He came back into town a different person. I guess there’s nothin wrong with that—he came back to a different town. Different than what he remembered.
His momma died on a rainy Easter Sunday while he was away. My momma went over to bring her fresh eggs from our coupe, and found her hang’n from that same Ponderosa pine out back—like it was planted by the Devil himself. Capturing souls one by one.
Matter of fact, that’s the first thing he did when he came back—cut that fucker down. I helped.
It reminded me of when we were kids. Chris and I stick’n together.
I’ll never forget one night in October when we were just in the fourth grade. Chris’s mom called us over to their place. Said there was an emergency.
We went over there and found that she was with child, or had been anyway. Some truck driver that worked at the quarry had knocked her up.
The baby—a little girl—came out much too early I reckon. She was born into this world deader’n a doornail, not bigger than both your fists put together. My momma was hold’n onto his momma real tight, and both of them cried n cried. Momma told Chris that he was the man of the house and to do the honorable thing, and me’n him did.
We took that little baby girl off the bathroom floor; blood all around—and wrapped her up in a scarf real nice, and put her in a two gallon pickle jar—laid her in a hole we dug out in Chris’s back field.
We stood out there in the dark. Two little men.
I never let those types of things change me too much.
A wise man has to know his limits. At least that’s what I’ve been told.
He has to be able to admit when he’s at fault, and when there’s no one to blame. When there’s nothing to be done, and to just let it be. He’s got to accept his life for what it is, and not spend all day cry’n about what it’s not. Gotta know that there’s some things that just happen—you cant take ‘em back.
I kept tell’n him it wasn’t his fault, but he never listened. Maybe he wanted it to be his fault. No matter how much you know someone, you never quite know whats goin on in their head. Maybe he was just look’n for an excuse to go crazy. If he was, then he found it—sure as shit.
A mans gotta be able to look inside—deep inside where no one wants to look, not even God himself. He’s gotta walk in that dark room; walls stained red, piled to the ceiling with people—memories. Papers with words; things that should’ve been, things that you shouldnt've done, things that happened to you—things that cant be taken back, or undone.
I walked in that room once.
I was my 24th birthday. I sat there on the banks of that same waterhole and let the desert breeze take me there, to that room. I didn’t bother clean’n up the walls. It was much too late for that.
I walked around in it for a while sayin hello to the bodies layin around on the floor; covered in papers. I moved’em all into the center of the room, and swept up each little scrap—all with words, stories, and names. Things that happened to me, things that happened to my momma, and all the things that happened to Chris—and his momma too.
I swept them all up in the middle of that room with all the people and their half forgotten faces. I piled them as high as I could and placed the papers that told this story; the summer of mud and blood, and placed them right on top of the whole heap.
I concentrated real hard and soaked that whole pile with gasoline. I soaked it till my nostrils dried and cracked and tears ran from my eyes. The papers became translucent in the dim light; their words ran off the page and mixed with the gas that pooled all around. I stood there at the door way and lit a match.
Burnt it all--burnt every last fuck'n thing in it. Burned that mother fucker right to the ground.
I don’t aim to ever go back.
So when you stand there and ask me, Have I changed; I got a real simple answer for you.
Ye’sir—ye’sir I have.
Submitted by Leslie Johnson
For more of Leslie Johnson’s writing visit TheLongDownwardSpiral.com
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
We rode our bikes through the mid-morning heat and after an hour we departed from the wide dirt road and onto a small path that slinked through the thick mix of juniper and prickly pear on the desert plane.