UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION

TRAVIS MILLS

Canasta’s Run

         Cane was the noticeable man who worked for Felis. He stood under a banana tree, his hair the color of

ash tucked under a soiled Panama hat. Lines ran deep and black in his battered white face. His eyes were always bloody.

         He picked day-old chicken from his molars with the wrong end of a match and leaned back so that the pitiful banana leaves came between him and the sun. He hated banana trees. If there had been another kind of tree around, he’d have climbed up in it, but the shabby group of banana trees was the only shade around and he took it. He felt the heat of the sun and remembered the day he stepped off a boat onto a long dock and walked a golden beach and how much he loved the sun that day.

         Abdul’s truck wandered up the dusty road. Cane used the right end of the match to light the cigarette between his lips. He rubbed the match dead on the tree.

         The truck pulled to a stop. Cane stood in the clearing dust. Through the windshield, he recognized the scarred face and the eye patch he knew too well. The other face he didn’t know. It belonged to a boy, nothing more than nineteen years old, with a cap of blonde hair and white teeth.

         Abdul got out and came around.

         “Who’s he,” Cane asked.

         “Ready for your last run?”

         “Who’s the boy?”

         “He’s going with you.”

         “The hell he is.”

         Abdul grinned. The brown tobacco water leaked through his teeth. “Canasta, when you’re gone, who will make the runs,” he said and spit.

         Cane dropped his cigarette and rubbed the back of his neck. He remembered when the sun had burned him but blisters had come and gone and left a hard crusted patch of skin.

         “Get your ride out of the back so I can drive,” Cane said.

         Abdul moved around the back of the truck. As he followed, Cane glanced up at the boy. He sat still, his eyes firm and pointed down, his mouth open somewhere in the limbo of expression.

         Abdul let the back door down and pulled a wooden ramp to the ground. He disappeared into the shadows where Cane could only make out the outlines of boxes—his supply load. He heard the snarl of a mule’s breath and Abdul reemerged from the darkness, holding it by the ear.

         As the mule descended the ramp, Cane fought the urge to run his fingers along its coat—a battered shred of fur and scars from an ambush years before. It was the last time he would see the mule and its owner. He had watched them both grow old.

         Abdul climbed onto the mule. “Are you really going to leave us, Canasta?”

         “I’ve waited twenty years not to see your bloody ass anymore. There’s nothing you could do to keep me here.”

         He removed his eye-patch and scratched the white hairs over his pale, dead eye. He grinned. “Where will you go?”

         “I’ll catch a boat on the coast.”

         “And from there?”

         “What do I do with the boy after I make the drop,” Cane interrupted.

         “He’ll make the drive back.”

         “He won’t be ready.”

         “He will or he won’t,” Abdul said and kicked the mule to tell it he was ready. It let out the closest sound it could to a groan and shuffled its feet.

         “Goodbye, Canasta. Try not to kill yourself on this last one.”

         “If I do, I still won’t have to see your ugly face again.”

         Abdul put his eye-patch back in place, spat, and turned the mule back up the road where he’d come.

         Cane did not wait around to watch him go. He pulled the ramp up and slid it into the back. He closed the door and moved around to the driver’s side. He swung himself up and inside and slammed the door shut while he turned the keys in the ignition.

         It wasn’t till the truck was bumping along at a steady pace that he looked over at the boy. He held a kerosene lighter in his right hand. With one finger, he flipped it open and the other, he sparked it. He never kept it long enough to produce a flame. He flipped it open, sparked it, all over again.

         Cane dug for the pack of cigarettes in his belt. He steadied the wheel with his knees and struck a match on the door. He lit the cigarette he put in his mouth and rubbed the match out in his hand. He threw the pack at the boy. It landed in his lap.

         The boy did not touch it. After a while, he looked at Cane and said, “I don’t smoke.”

         “Then put the fire away.”

         The boy flipped it open, sparked it till he got a solid flame. He tugged one of the cigarettes out of the pack and held the fire with both hands while he lit it. He pulled smoke into his mouth without letting it into his lungs. He blew the smoke out and it clouded the cab.

         His hand reached for the window lever. He pulled and it wouldn’t go.

         “Jammed,” Cane said.

         The boy looked at him and pulled again. After the second time, he gave up. He wiped the layered sweat off with his sleeve.

         “When we get higher up, it won’t be so bad. Right now, it won’t do any good,” Cane said and turned the truck around a grove of mango trees. He gazed at the pass before him, just a snake of a road leading up many hills. They reminded him of the bumps on a woman’s skin when she was frightened.

         He pushed the pedal to the floor for the last stretch of flat ground. The sun was finally crawling down and would soon hide. For that he was grateful, but he thought of how many afternoons he had come this way. Somehow he did not feel better because it was the last time.

         “What’s your name?” the boy asked.

         “Cane.”

         The boy put the cigarette out on the seat. He threw the butt on the floor.

         “That’s not what he called you,” he said.

         Cane felt the road pick up beneath him. The slope had begun.

         “What did he call me?”

         “I don’t remember. It was something else.”

         Cane shifted the truck into a lower gear. The engine talked back to him. He patted the steering wheel. “Shh,” he whispered. “My name’s Cane. I don’t have any other name.”

         The boy returned to silence. He sat still with no lighter or cigarette to keep him busy. Cane watched the hood of the truck, where the sun still baked everything it could touch. He looked for a place to pull over and after a few hundred yards he caught sight of a ledge where the ground flattened out. He pulled the truck to a stop and shut off the engine. It hissed and he scratched the tough skin of his face.

         “What are you doing?”

         “Cigarettes,” Cane ordered. When the boy handed them over, he got out of the truck. By the ledge there was a tree, dwarfed from wind and rain. It hung halfway off the hill. Cane leaned on the trunk and started smoking.

         After a moment, the boy followed him. He listened to the truck hiss. He put his hand on the hood.

         A sharp pain gripped his face and he crouched with his hand between his knees, shaking. He glared at Cane with a blood vessel on its way out of his forehead. “How’d you know?”

         Cane didn’t have to answer him, the same way he didn’t have to touch the engine with his hand to know it needed a rest. He’d spent long enough with the truck on his runs that it was just as much a part of his body as his ears or his toes.

         The boy’s pain eased and he shuffled over to the tree. He rubbed his hand and measured the lines on Cane’s face with his eyes.

         “I remembered,” the boy said.

         “What did you remember, kid?”

         “I remembered what it was the one-eyed bastard called you.”

         Cane lit another cigarette with the first one.

         “Canasta.”

         Cane pulled smoke and blew. He looked up in the branches of the dwarfed tree. A few monkeys ran about. They had small bodies and long tails. They reminded him of squirrels.

         “Isn’t that right?”

         “He did,” Cane answered. He took the hat off his head, leaned back on the bent trunk and covered his face. “It’s going to be a long night, kid.”

         He closed his eyes and started counting. He counted the times he’d come up the hills. He fell asleep sometime after he reached one hundred and fifty-two.

         He woke to the sound of knocking. He lifted the Panama hat from his face and prepared for the light to blind his eyes, but there was barely any, only the last gray shine of a sun that had just gone away. He heard the knock again. It came from the branches above.

         A stone shot against the wood, grazed the leaves and missed one of the monkeys by a hair. The arm that had thrown it belonged to the boy. He stood a few feet away. In his once burned hand he held several stones. He threw another one. It missed completely and sailed down the hillside.

         Cane got on his feet and put a cigarette in his mouth. He decided not to light it.

         He walked towards the truck with his back turned towards the boy. He heard the sound of the stone again, but this time there was a thud instead of a knock. Cane turned to see one of the monkeys, knocked silly from the blow, fall off its branch and tumble to the ground. The boy ran to the ledge. He turned around, his eyes marked surprise, and he smiled with split lips.

         Cane climbed into the truck and started the engine. He eased on the pedal and the boy ran to catch up as he started back up the hill.

         Cane turned the wheel hard to the left. The truck cut wide around the bend and he remembered how close he was to the steepest stretch of the first hill.

         He rolled down his window and felt the night’s breeze coming at him. The jungle no longer looked bright green and warm, but black and alive. He glanced at the boy. The stones he held in his hand had fallen to the floor. His head lay propped against the door. It bounced up and down with the beat of the truck but he remained asleep, the way only a young man could.

         Cane felt the earth rise beneath him once again. He pulled hard and pushed the truck into its lowest gear. His foot planted the pedal to the floor. The engine roared. He felt all the weight of gravity push him back against the seat. He looked out the window and he could only see the moon clouded in the sky.

         A crash came from the back. He spun his head and pulled the curtain open. He heard another box fall and crash against the back door.

         His mouth opened to curse but the words stopped when he noticed the boy, wide awake, staring at him.

         “What’s wrong?” the boy asked.

         “They didn’t pack it right.”

         Cane turned back to the wheel. He held it steady and pushed on the pedal harder, though he knew it was already pushed as hard as it could.

         “What are you going to do?”

         “Nothing I can do,” Cane said, “but get to the top of the hill.”

         The boy shuffled in his seat. He pulled the curtain back and stuck his head in the darkness. Another box crashed.

         “I’ll see if I can hold them down,” he said.

         “Stay put. It’s dangerous,” Cane yelled.

         “Will we lose some of them,” the boy asked.

         “We might.”

         “I’m going back there.”

         “It won’t do any good.” The words left his mouth while the boy climbed through the curtain opening into the back. Cane kept his eyes to the moon and waited for the world to tip forward. He listened to the boy as he fumbled around in the darkness, doing more harm he was sure than good.

         He felt the ground start to level out and the moon vanished over the roof. He gazed across the shining jungle. The truck breathed heavy. He kept his foot on the brake.

         The boy climbed back into the cab. Drops of blood fell from his left eyebrow. He sat and dabbed the cut with his palm. He looked at the blood, curiously, and continued to hold his hand over it.

         Cane laughed. It was an uncontrollable laugh that began in his stomach. He tried to keep it in but the laugh exploded.

         The boy glared at him, not angry, but frightened. Cane finished and lit the cigarette that had dangled from his mouth for a while. He let the truck roll ahead. It began a slow descent but quickly picked up speed and the wind blew hard through the window. It put out his cigarette and knocked his hat off his head.

         The truck raged down the hill, flying over the bumps. The boy watched Cane, his gray hair blown back, a wide grin on his face, his foot not even near the brake.

         The road leveled out a little. Cane’s foot hit the gas. The truck raged on. He used all his strength to hold the wheel steady. Up ahead, the road curved and shot straight up another hillside. Cane wrapped his arm around the wheel. He slowly spun it to his right. For a moment, everything seemed to be turning over on its side. The boy held tight to the door. The truck passed around the curve and sailed up the hillside. They were still racing almost to the top and they set into a steady pace.

         The boy sighed. He let all the air out of him and then took it back in. He wiped his forehead. Cane found his hat and put it back on.

         They reached the crest of the hill. Before them, the road disappeared under a canopy of deep jungle. Cane brought the truck along the winding turns, palming the wheel in a slow descent.

         “How long have you known Felis?” The boy sat with his legs crossed. The moonlight bounced off his eyes.

         “I don’t know him at all,” Cane answered.

         “But you work for him?”

         He nodded.

         “How long has it been?”

         “Since the war.”

         “You fought in the war? You’re awful old.”

         Cane ignored the boy. He pushed his hat back on his head and re-lit his cigarette. This time, he tossed the match out the window and watched it die in the night. “I was nineteen,” he said.

         “The first war?”

         Cane blew smoke. He said nothing.

         “You’ve been driving this thing for more than twenty years,” the boy continued.

         Cane filled his lungs.

         “You must’ve done something real dumb to piss him off.”

         He let it out through his nose. “I did,” he said.

         The boy fell silent.

         “What did you do?” Cane asked.

         The boy pulled on the window lever again. He pulled harder when he remembered it was jammed.

         “I asked his daughter to dance.”

         Cane flicked his cigarette out the window. “Did she dance with you?”

         “She did,” the boy said, his voice low, his tongue tired.

         Cane rolled the window up because the wind blew cold on his sweat. He shook off a chill. “Where you from, kid?”

         “Ohio.”

         “What are you doing down here?”

         “Vacation,” he whispered, “with some the old boys from the service.”

         “Where are they?”

         “When things got tough, they went home. Said they’d come back with some dough to get me out.”

         Cane pulled the truck around a long corner.

         “Can’t say I blame them,” the boy said. After a while, he muttered, “Where are you from?”

         “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

         “Where are you going when you get out of here?”

         “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”

         “You’ve been driving this truck for thirty years waiting to get out and you haven’t given a damn thought to it? I’d have dreamed up a thousand things.”

         Cane glanced at the boy. He’d stopped holding the cut. A line of dried blood ran down by his ear.

         “I think I might go to London,” Cane said. His mouth felt dry. He had no spit left.

         “England?”

         Cane nodded. “There’s a woman there I knew during the war.”

         “You think she’s still around? She’s probably married by now.”

         “Maybe.”

         He licked his lips. His fingers fumbled through his pack of cigarettes and told him there was only one left. He threw the pack at the boy. The boy picked it up and took the last cigarette out.

         “You ever going to tell me why he called you Canasta?”

         “Sure.”

         “When?”

         “When we get to the end of line.”

         He let the pack fall to the floor. He rolled the cigarette between his fingers.

         “You going to smoke it or play with it all night long?”

         “I’ll save it for later,” the boy said and put it in his shirt pocket.

         The truck brushed against a tree. Cane straightened them out. There wasn’t much road to see. He looked ahead in the hazy mist that drifted through the jungle.

         “What does this girl in England look like,” the boy asked.

         “I doubt she’s a girl anymore.”

         “Well what did she look like?”

         Cane spotted something ahead. He pumped the brake. Through the mist, the headlights caught the outline of a large black mass.

         He pushed hard on the breaks. The truck came to a stop, ten feet short of the thing in the road.

         “Don’t ask any questions,” Cane hissed.

         He leaned over the steering wheel and looked down past the hood into the road. After a moment, his right hand went under the seat. There was a snap. His hand reemerged with a Colt. 45. He checked to see if it was loaded. It was.

         Quietly, he pulled the handle to the door. He stepped out. The air was wet. He hung close to the truck.

         The engine breathed on him as he made his way around it, finger on the trigger.

         He bent down over the mass. His free hand reached out and wrapped around the water buffalo’s one unbroken horn. He then felt the core of its body, closest to where he assumed its heart might be.

         He heard a sound. The boy tip toed around the other of the side of the truck. He bent down next to Cane. “Can we drive around it?” he said, softer than a whisper.

         Cane took his hand away. He wiped it on his pants. “Yes, we can.”

         He stood up straight. He looked forward into the road. It disappeared in the darkness and the mist. He turned to his right and his left. Black green leaves held still in what looked like a wall of bushes and trees. There was only the sound of a parrot, far off.

         “What’s wrong?”

         “Why did this thing have to die in the middle of the road?”

         He heard a branch snap. He clung to the bumper.

         “Lie down,” he ordered the boy. The boy crouched down.

         “Lie down next to the buffalo.” The boy flattened himself to the ground. Cane looked under the truck. He began to crawl beneath it but stopped. Crouched, he moved slowly along the truck, back to the driver’s side door.

         A shot rang out. He felt the bullet zip past his ankle before he heard the sound. There was another that followed it but he was already suspended in the air, hanging off the side mirror. He was just as happy that the bullets had missed the tires as his feet. He briefly imagined the nightmare of being stranded without a way out of the hills.

         He heard muffled shouting from the other side of the trucks. Seconds went by. Footsteps started on the road. He let his feet down and rushed around the back of the truck. He met a man dead on. It was only luck that he held his gun the way he did; it slid right up to the man’s belly. He fired. He noticed the man’s features after he put a second bullet in him. His mustache was wet with the blood he spit from his lips. He held his shaking gut with two fat hands until his gut stopped shaking and he stopped breathing.

         There were no footsteps left to be heard. Cane scratched his chin with the Colt. He moved one foot at a time to the other side of the truck. He peaked around the corner.

         The boy poked his head up from the dead buffalo. He spotted Cane and waved. Cane watched him hover over the carcass before he crawled away. When he reached the front wheel, he got to his knees and when he reached the passenger door he got to his feet. He slid along, coming towards the back of the truck.

         A body moved from out of the bushes. The second man did not make a sound. He held a rifle by his side like it was his arm. He too watched the boy work inch by inch; he hadn’t seen Cane yet.

         Cane took aim at the man, the Colt at his hip. The man pulled the rifle to his shoulder and traced the boy’s path.

         Cane bit his tongue. He watched the boy and his blonde hair in the night and kept the words inside him. He waited until the shot rang out. He heard the whimper and then he knew. He fired and caught the shooter by surprised. The man fell on top of his rifle, face down.

         Cane peaked around the side of the truck. The boy lay crumpled in a ball. There was a hole in the center of his back. Cane bent down to check if he was breathing. He wasn’t.

         He stuffed the Colt in his belt and pulled the boy up. He dragged him to the passenger door, leaned him against the truck, opened it up, and with some effort, hauled him up into the seat.

         He went around to the driver’s side and climbed in. He started the engine. The truck reversed and maneuvered around the buffalo. Cane drove on through the misty jungle road.

         After a minute, he looked over at the boy. He leaned against the door, body bouncing along with the bumps in the road. Cane reached over and pulled the last cigarette from the boy’s pocket. He struck a match and lit it. He pumped on the brakes and took a turn. He could see the next hill. Behind it and the next one, there was the end of his run. He blew smoke and looked at the boy again.

         “It’s better like this,” he said.

         He fell silent and remained so. He realized he was talking to himself.








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