-22-

The Blowout

The fuel truck had a blowout somewhere near the southwestern end of the old Tiger Mountain State Park and we came to a stop beside a small turnout lined with concrete barriers once used to deter vehicles from pulling further onto the level pad of ground now grown over waist high with grass and thistles and the occasional conifer sapling. Maybe at one time it had been a picnic area long since unfunded out of existence, but here, the men stretched their legs while the mechanics replaced the tire. 

 

Custer, too, emerged from his trailer, hands pressing into the small of his back, arching his torso like a pregnant woman—but pregnant with what? If you’d been a vagabond lurking in the trees on the other side of the road, if you’d seen our captain just then, and that was all you ever saw of him, you might have mistaken him for someone comfortable in his own skin, or maybe not even thought about him at all, as, aside from that bone-white peg with its macabre scrimshawing, he looked more or less like an ordinary man, a little on the lean side, hardened around the eyes, but ordinary in most respects, and yet, if you’d stuck around for even another minute, zoomed in with your binoculars, you would have seen him casting suspicious glances at his men, not to mention his men glancing warily back at him, and realized this was not the kind of man good parents would ever think to leave their own kids with. You just wouldn’t want to subject them to the unpredictability of moods that make a man close his eyes and smell after the breeze this way, a sensualist, the kind of man whose very presence invites hugs, but who, apropos of nothing, will, as he did that day, smell the air and smell something in it that made him suddenly start yelling crazy shit like, “Behold the gold buffalo!”  

 

Of course, we knew what he meant—the gold coin riveted to the hood of the truck, the prize for whoever raised the white zombie—but where this outburst came from, I doubt even Custer knew. 

 

Still, we obeyed, and fell into this almost-daily ritual of gold-gandering, walked over each in our turn to have yet another look at the dazzling lucre, the would-be bonus. 

 

***

To me, the coin had already lost much of its luster. That may have owed in part to the dust from the road, but even after Chucho used his shirt to shine it, something seemed to be missing from it, some elemental change, like some strange, reverse alchemy had taken place in the passage, turning gold into iron or lead. Then again, I’d never lusted after money. The best financial year I ever had was the worst in every other respect, and I never forgot the lesson in that, so it only stood to reason that the events of the previous few days, the murders of the marauders, the losses of Lard Ass and Pippin, our abandonment of those poor people in Carnation, had further tarnished our prize. It sparkled but so do many things that are cursed. 

 

But that was just my opinion, and one I kept to myself, more interested, as I usually was, in what everyone else thought; indeed, the coin worked its way through the roughnecks’ thoughts the way gold was found laced throughout ore, in every imaginable formation: quartz, jasperiod, calaverite, hematite, even encased in pyrite—that is, gold buried inside fool’s gold. 

Here, Chucho looked at the coin, and told me, “I’d probably build a tree fort. Walkways between trees. Some serious Ewok shit. [1] And those rope ladders. You could come with me if you wanted. You could be that one dude. The sidekick who always overthinks everything.”

Ragnar, rather than responding to Chucho, said as he had on a number of other occasions, “I’d buy a bunch of shipping containers. Build a solid-ass compound. Hopefully impress a chick? Maybe one who isn’t permanently afraid of dudes.” 

“I gave my girlfriend a gold necklace once,” Christopher Martin, the newly promoted third lieutenant, said to no one in particular: “It had this dolphin pendant. She was way into dolphins. She pretty much loved that necklace. But you wanna know the shitty part? I got it for her because I fucked this other chick. I was feeling kinda bad and she didn’t find out or anything but still. She found out about the next one, though. The team’s new physical therapy intern or whatever. She gave the necklace back. I ended up throwing it off the I-5 overpass. Anyway, I’d melt this thing into a dolphin and go back in time and give it to her. I mean, not that I can. But that’s what I’d do.”

Huckleberry, never one for adding anything substantive to conversations, said, “First you get the money. Then you get the power. Then you get the pussy….”

Starbucks wasn’t one who usually offered much in our weird bullion-gazing sessions, but he did that day: “Sometimes when I’m on point, manning the turret, I look back and see the sun glinting off the coin. It’s like it’s winking. It kind of reminds me of my grandpa. I never asked him about Vietnam but I think I understand him better now, where his mind was. It was like he’d come out of his head for a second and wink at us grandkids, then he’d head back in. His head was like a highland jungle, I think. He always wanted to buy a pontoon boat. Everyone knew it about him: grandpa wanted a pontoon boat. Which was weird because he never even rented one and wasn’t even much for going outside, but still. It would be peaceful out there rocking with the waves, soothing. I didn’t get it before but I guess I do now. A pontoon boat would be nice. Go out, anchor in the middle of some lake somewhere. Take a tent. A chaise lounge. Some books.”

One of the mechanics, taking a break from his work, came over and leaned against the fender, his navy-blue coveralls covered in grease[2], and was suddenly struck by this thought: “Huh. Never thought of it before but that rivet, it musta punched out a piece of the gold in the center. Like, there must be a little tiny gold coin right back where all this started. It’s gotta be worth a decent chunk, too. But good luck finding it now.”

He was right: even today there must still be a tiny gold coin in the dust on a mountain road overlooking a blown-out reservoir. 

Jason, recently promoted from being Christopher Martin’s friend to the big man’s chief security guard, nodded, and said, “I hate that the hole goes through the middle of the Native-American’s face. All I see when I look at it now is Chief. I hope he escaped. I hope he is okay.”

“Shit,” Christopher Martin said. “Shit.”

 

“The others are taking a long time to catch up….” Chucho said suggestively.

 

“True,” Ragnar said, scratching his tattoo of a horn-helmed Loki.

 

“Enough,” Starbucks said. 

 

“Whatever,” our greasy mechanic friend, Z-Mart, said. “You know you don’t want that quiet fucker dead either.”

 

“Easy there,” Starbucks said. “Wanting Chief to be alive and wanting all of you to keep on living aren’t mutually exclusive propositions.”

 

“Holy shit,” Huckleberry said. “Give this man a gold star on the vocab test!”

***

The conversation carried on this way for a bit longer, but, just as it always seemed to happen whenever our little motley crew started commiserating, one of Custer’s mercenaries strolled by, a faint smirk on his mug, wearing his sunglasses with their gold lenses, reflecting our image back to us, as in a pair of oil slicks.

“Hey, I’ve been wondering,” Ragnar said: “Do robots have assholes or do you fuckers just shit out of your fucking mouths?”

All but Starbucks and Jason laughed. 

The mercenary stopped, not saying anything, only grinning. 

“Enough,” Starbucks said to the others, then to the mercenary: “He’s joking.”

The man didn’t move, didn’t seem concerned in the least, not with being laughed at, not with Starbucks’ consideration. Ragnar’s robot joke only seemed that much more appropriate. It was as if this one’s personality programming had been wiped. My tendency was to empathize, to wonder about the kinds of experiences that would turn a person into a killing machine such as this, or to go intellectual, to think about how little difference there really was between a man and a zombie once you brainwashed him into thinking of everything and everyone as a target. Not Huckleberry. Huckleberry’s tendency was to puff up. Which is what he did here.

“Move along, dipshit.” 

The mercenary did not move.

Everyone knew Huckleberry was about to rest his hand on one of his pistols, because that’s what he always did, but Starbucks grabbed him by the arm. 

“You stupid son of a bitch,” the lieutenant said. “I ought to let him shoot you.”

The mercenary chuckled. Huckleberry yanked his arm away.

“Anytime, anywhere,” he said to the man. “I’m your Huckleberry.” 

The man shrugged in such a way that seemed to say No time like the present.

However, just then, the lieutenant’s handheld radio beeped and Custer’s voice crackled over the static.

“Starbucks. The scout says we’ve got a snarl of autos a couple miles up the road. A couple hundred malingerers. Contact is assured. Get the pawns back in the trucks. We’ve got work to do. Over.”

The men looked to Starbucks like Pawns?! 

The lieutenant rolled his eyes at this, seemed even to be on our side, but of course he didn’t say anything, didn’t challenge the captain, but only keyed his radio and copied. 

 

“Well,” he said, clapping his hands together. “You heard the captain. We’ve got zombies to kill.”

Just like that, the mercenary broke his focus and strolled off to take his position. Before Huckleberry could say anything else that was stupid, Ragnar shoved him toward the trucks. 

But we all knew this wasn’t over.

<< >>

 

--------------------------------------------

 

[1] Ewoks were small, furry, stone-age bipeds that appeared in a popular space opera movie from the 1980s called Return of the Jedi. They lived in elaborate tree villages (which would have been an ideal zombie compound) and the other characters, the white, supposedly superior humanoid characters, treated them like idiots, patronizing them the way colonists always do indigenes. 

[2] I think this man’s name was Z-Mart, though it might have been Y-Max, or X-Man, or something similar, and, just as his name eludes my memory, so do certain features of his face, so that, trying to remember it, I seem only to remember that I’d always assumed he was just one of those white mechanics I always used to see coming out of Seattle garages, or, rather, I hadn’t thought about his race at all, as if, by not thinking about it at all, I must have been, on some subconscious level, and to my own private shame, considering white to be the default race, the normal, or ordinary pigment, but, through the very act of looking more closely, it appeared that he may not have been white after all, but was probably racially mixed, though the particulars were somewhat frustrating to nail down. Which is to say that the mechanic could have been white and some portion Tongan, or maybe Filipino and some percentage fair-skinned Persian, or any number of other combinations that, as the sun slowly descended over the horizon, as he tilted his head at just such an angle, managed to amplify this or that trait to the consternation of some other trait. All I really know is that he was a man who existed. The rest sort of melts away along with the flesh and the memory.