29 September, 2016 – Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
After Jack takes his leave of Hokie, swaying a bit, he realizes he is in some need of a suitable place to urinate. Not wanting to shock local custom, he goes looking for the standard place. It’s usually not hard to find. Guided by instinct, he proceeds around the stub of a brick wall. It looks like it’s a piece of what used to be a storage building for the switching yard. And, sure enough, he is greeted by the sight of an ancient plastic outhouse, very possibly dating from the same era as the brick building. Unfortunately, however, it is lying on its side. Walking up to it, he opens the door anyway, swinging it upward. “Shit,” he says. Which is exactly what the insides of the outhouse have been spattered with.
But it looks like the fall of the outhouse was a relatively recent event, so people have most likely taken to using some place nearby.
Turning the corner, Jack stops abruptly. He sees that the spot he hoped for is indeed just where he thought it might be. The remaining brick wall produces a very nice shelter from the wind, is enclosed enough by the high walls to have some degree of privacy, yet catches enough sun to be warm on days when that matters. All in all an excellent place to do one’s business, except for the fact that it is currently occupied by the good-looking young lad of thirteen or so that he saw a while ago, hanging out with the wanna-be gang.
However, it’s pretty obvious that the unusually good-looking lad of thirteen is, in fact, an average-looking young lady of perhaps seventeen.
The girl’s eyes widen with fear as she sees him. In a heartbeat she is standing, has her baggy pants up, held by one white-knuckled hand, and has a blade in the other, held out straight in front of her as far as her arm will reach, as though the extra distance might provide an extra degree of safety.
The knife, he notices, is not a cardboard-wrapped shiv. It’s something short and mean-looking, with a nice coating on the steel and a real handle. It looks, in short, like Money. She sure didn’t buy it, and she also doesn’t know enough about blades—judging by the fact that she knows fuck-all about how to even hold it—to be smart enough to have stolen something so nice from among all the knives of the world. Most likely, therefore, it was something she grabbed as she was leaving home, whenever that may have been. So, she left a home with money? Not necessarily. Plenty of people used to have money that don’t anymore, and sometimes those are the meanest.
“Hey, peace!” Jack says, holding his hands out to his sides and backing a step. “I’m here for the same reason you are.” He smiles. “Well, almost.”
“Just stay the fuck away,” the girls says, the point of her knife describing a random pattern of nervousness in the air. “Back the fuck up!”
“You don’t need that, sister,” Jack says. “I’m never gonna be hard up enough to force it on anybody.” Jack learned long ago that the sound of his voice is at least as important as what he says. He also learned that he has a voice that the ladies seem to like. Now he speaks as calmingly as he knows how, but he does not ‘back the fuck up’.
“What’re you so scared of anyways?” Jack says. “That crowd you’re running with been treating you OK, I see.”
The girl breathes a few times, maybe the third one just a little less panicked than the first.
“How do you know that?” she asks.
“Well,” Jack gestures, slowly, with just the fingers of one hand. “They let you keep the knife just to make you feel good. It sure ain’t because you’re any bit of use with it.”
Three more breaths, and now definitely calming down. “Yeah, I am.” A frown flickers briefly on her nicely regular features.
“Well, you see,” Jack says, “Your really good knife fighters, now, they know that you can’t really fight while holding up their pants with one hand.”
“Look,” Jack continues in his best Reasonable Older Brother voice, “I’m sorry for giving you a start. How about you take a smoke for my apology, and I leave you be.”
The girl stops looking like she wants to back through the brick wall and peers at him suspiciously, squinting with one eye.
“What kind of smoke?” she asks. “You probly got some faggoty garbage weed you picked up from some ditch somewhere and rolled in toilet-paper, is what you’ve got.” But her eyes do quick little darting glances at the places on his jacket where she might hope to detect the bulge of a pack in a pocket.
“Well now that’s where you would be wrong, sister,” Jack replies, reaching for his jacket’s inner vest pocket like a stage magician about to produce a wonder. “Because what I’ve got here,” he slowly draws out his last-but-one pack. “Is the finest, the purest,” he exposes to the light of day one corner of the sky-blue pack, “Red Man’s smoke that can be acquired, but only if you got the jack, and you know where, and you get real lucky. American Spirit smoke,” he finishes extracting the pack with a flourish, “straight off the Res. So what do you say? Will you take one off my hands, just for no hard feelings?”
She glances up, then quickly back down again as though afraid the pack might disappear, and licks her lips the tiniest bit.
Looking behind him, the girl’s eyes widen microscopically. Jack turns.
He takes a deep breath and smiles widely. He should have known that her boyfriends wouldn’t let her out of their sight for long. Three of them have shown up, in their pseudo-gang jackets, looking grim.
“Hey muchachos,” he says. “How’s it hanging, brothers?”
One of them steps ahead of the others.
“Hey, culero,” the young man says. He produces a butterfly knife, and with two quick flicks has it opened and its point a foot from Jack’s nose. “You need to fuck off right now, brah,” the young man explains.
Jacks eyes focus nervously on the knife point and he produces a smile that very clearly says I am a powerless piece of shit! One of the many things that Jack thinks he might have done, in a better world, is become an actor. He would have liked that. Eight years on the rails will hone a skill like that until it has an edge sharp enough to cut anybody.
The powerless white guy smiles nervously, his eyes flicking to the other two road warriors, and back to Knife Boy, who is obviously the boss.
If he could advise these clowns, Jack reflects, he would tell them to put the big guy in front with the knife, and the smart guy off to one side with his hands in his pockets. But these muchachos aren’t that smart, which is kind of a shame.
“Hey, come on!” the girl says. “He’s OK!” She gets ignored.
“I don’t want any trouble, man,” Jack says, with sincere concern in his voice. He put his hands to his chest to show yet more sincerity—and comes out with his lovely four-inch revolver. Stepping forward before Knife Boy knows what’s happening, Jack puts the barrel of the gun against the young man’s forehead, which involves allowing Knife Boy’s knife-point to just touch the place between the bottom of Jack’s nose, and the top of his teeth, where it draws a bit of blood. And he just got done cleaning blood off his face! But, whatever, Jack reflects. Anyway, he kind of likes the smell.
“I’m not taking your girl, punta,” Jack says. “But, goddamn,” he smiles, “I’d be happy to see the sun shine through your fucking worthless head.”
Knife Boy blinks and goes a little cross-eyed. To his credit, he doesn’t jerk back or do anything sudden.
“Hey, put that away would you?” Walking up to them, the girl pushes Jack’s revolver away as casually as if it were a plastic squirt gun. But she looks at Knife Boy.
“Frankie, I said he’s OK, god damn it! He’s not gonna fucking eat me! We’re gonna have a fuckin smoke!” She scowls ominously. “Now you fuck off for ten minutes before I decide you’re not OK!”
Frankie, who did not blink with Jack’s gun to his head, blinks at that.
“Yeah, OK, whatever,” he mumbles. And, with a last resentful glance at Jack, turns away.
“So, why’d you leave home?” Jack asks.
The girl hits her smoke and exhales once, then again.
“Oh, you know,” she says at last. “Parents.”
“They beat you?”
“Oh no,” she frowns. “Nothin like that. It was just— They were arguing all the time,” the girl says. “About money, and everything. I could hear them through the register in my room. About how they couldn’t afford to feed us kids, and everything. They were gonna send me away to my aunt Dana out in the country cuz she had a farm, except I hated that bitch. So I figured ‘What the hell?’ and I just took off.”
The girl looks at the glowing tip of her smoke, flicks imaginary ash from it, and then hits it again luxuriously.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I figure it’s for the best. Maybe they got to keep Bobby that way. I don’t know.”
Fifteen minutes later they’re still smoking, although Jack thinks he better take off pretty soon before her boyfriends decide to come back again. He figures he’ll make a gift to her of the pack with its half-dozen remaining smokes. She seems like a good kid.
But still he hesitates to leave. It’s quite a novelty to find a girl riding the rails. Or maybe he’s still thinking about how he and Hokie talked earlier. The booze certainly hasn’t worn off yet, and maybe the philosophy hasn’t either.
“You ever wonder,” Jack says slowly, “how things would’ve been if—” He laughs self-consciously. “Damn, I don’t even know. If what? If the War hadn’t’ve happened, I guess? Then maybe the Collapse wouldn’t’ve come and things would still be—normal, I guess? You ever wonder about that?”
In the tree-tops, the wind moves.
“No,” the girl says with a frown and a little shake of her head. “They woulda just found a different way to fuck things over.” She takes a languid drag off her smoke and exhales up at the pure blue sky, then fixes Jack with a blue-eyed gaze and smiles. “Things ain’t so bad this way, are they?”
Jack laughs. He can still see a human head bouncing past him off the metal top of a train car. And an old man, taking a swing with that stump of his. And a week’s worth of warm days and easy rides on top of a perfect world. And an airship a thousand yards long.
Shall we go in for a spot of tea? Or perhaps—something stronger?
“Maybe so,” he nods after a while. “Maybe so.”