GEORGE SPARLING

Before

     St. Louis prostitutes took the last of my money, so I hitched rather than take the
Dog north to Burlington, Iowa. Trucks blew me sideways, smoky diesel fumes gagged
me, and a serious hangover caused me once again to feel puny. For two days hookers
made life as a postal mail sorter seem not so bad after all. Another semi ripped past, and
I felt the full brunt of cold, early April winds made worse because I hadn’t eaten
breakfast.

     At twenty-three, living between girlfriends, thousands of wheels rotating over highway
61 shriveled my ego even more than an hour before. Thumb out, bluish lips twitched
from sleepless nights and too many shots: Would a damned ride ever come? After an
hour of a leaky nose, plus nausea from hundreds of exhaust pipe fumes, a ’57 Ford pulled
over. I clambered into the backseat.

     The three black men looked like they each had good-sized hangovers, even greater
than my own. The guy next to me lay curled by the window, open palms on either side of
his face, rocking back and forth. The man who rode shotgun turned his head, letting out
small belches. The fatigued driver, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, nearly
inhaled it as he spoke.

     “Traveling to St. Louis always makes me feel bigger,” he said. Turning, his arm rested
on the top of the front seat as he checked me out.

     “I’m going to Burlington,” I said, glad they both lived in Iowa as well as sharing that
hangover-state-of-mind. Comrades in both pain and pleasure. I unzipped my jacket.

     “Going to the U of Iowa, getting an education, that’s the way to go,” the man on my
left said, reviving a bit. He eyed my University of Iowa sweatshirt. I’d dropped out. I
thought about traveling around, maybe giving college another chance, I wasn’t sure. I’d
collected three shelves of books. My only book until college had been a Dickens novel in
senior English class. Three semesters had piqued my intellectual curiosity. These days I’d
become intrigued about how things worked.

        “College opened my eyes, there’s so much I never knew,” I said.

     “You don’t have to read books to see what’s happening, you know,” the backseat man
said. Even-toned, not in disagreement, more like additional information should be noted.
I turned my head, meeting the man’s gaze. He seemed to have lost much of that hangover
I’d observed getting into the car.

     “Damn, my ulcer bleeds whenever I drink too much bourbon,” the man riding shotgun
said. “That ever happen to you?” His bloodshot eyes, seams of an autumnal-red maple
leaf, stared at me. Was that a medical question? Like his car mates, I whored in St. Louis
for a couple of days, getting hard-liquored drunk, four of us plagued by Hangover
Planet. Earthlings all, but what actual common ground had we occupied?

     “Give them time, I’m sure they’ll bleed to death,” I said. Drunk-talk, sounding good
but meaning nothing as we began sobering up.

     “The common affliction, bleeding,” he said, pressing his belly.

     They drove in silence, except for occasional coughs, farts and matches going off for
cigarettes. The driver suddenly pulled over and stopped. He got out, heaving in tall grass,
took a long piss, then came back.

     “Can you drive?” he asked me. Alcohol still flowed in my blood, leaving me slightly
boozy. I hesitated before answering.

     “Sure, my driver’s license is good.”

     “I need shuteye, I’m beat,” the man said. He left the radio on. I sat behind the wheel.

     “Easy does it,” the man told me, slumping down, asleep before I’d driven a hundred
yards.

     Soon, my foot pushed down harder, whizzing past Eoila, Cyrene, Frankfort, Palmyra,
and Taylor, imagining husbands cheating on wives, unable to keep it secret in burgs
where people were smack against everyone’s face. I pictured a widow seated in the
parlor, watching TV with sound turned low, her female roomer upstairs playing two-
handed hearts, the widow going back and forth in a creaking rocker, fidgeting with her
knobby arthritic fingers. I remembered Sherwood Anderson, that book of stories about
small-town life squashing everyone to death. It was on my bookshelf, but I forgot the
title.

     Going seventy, I imagined barroom talk about cows, mortgages, the Chicago Bears,
guys arrested for public intoxication and hit-and-runs. And the jabber about “the
coloreds,” drunken slobber about commies running the country. Pushing eighty, I
heard a nickel clacking into a jukebox, then Lefty Frizzell’s “I’m An Old, Old Man
( Tryin To Live While I Can ),” dominoes moving across a grainy table, Busch
beer bottles clinking, malfunctioning neon sputtering on the outdoor sign.

     At eighty-miles-an-hour, the car radio still picked up a St. Louis station as it played
James Brown’s “Night Train,” smooth, incessant, driving rhythms in which Brown
called out major cities traveling up the East Coast from the South, signifying how the
land was measured not only by mileage, mountain ranges or weather, but also by
race, all the ghettoes in each city Brown ticked off. The man in the backseat went “ka-
cha, ka-cha” to the song, now faintly heard as the station’s signal faded.

     The sleeping ex-driver awoke when I hit ninety, and calmly told me to pull over.
He muttered something, but I couldn’t hear him, the song or going sentimental through
rural Missouri distracting me.

     “I’m rested now, I’ll take over,” he said louder.

     I shunted onto the edge of the highway, giving way to him. Was that a hard stare
he shot at me? Hadn’t he said under his breath, I bet you don’t drive your car like that?
Hadn’t he said, Just because we’re black men don’t mean you can get away with that
white-boy shit? In the backseat, I hoped the men wouldn’t hold my cavalier treatment of
their lives against him. They looked at me as if I were a stranger, no longer even a hitch-
hiker pal quickly known by fast, on-the-road chatter. The bad-stomach man talked
whispery into the driver’s ear, acknowledging some code, saying, “Uh huh.” I hugged the
door, having exhausted words, mutuality drained from me. Paranoia swept through me.

     The driver made a turn west on Route 16, a narrow, bumpy road. He swung around a
tractor, soon hooking a right onto a gravel road hedged between cornfields. If I said
anything, only dry, unintelligible, parched words would stick to the roof of my mouth.
Soon, the car traveled down a pinched, rutted dirt road without signs or markings. Then,
another turn down what amounted to a lane, fit only for horse buggies or wagons. No one
spoke. Then, a quick swing left into a weedy field with scattered, small hummocks,
territory fit for quail and garter snakes. Finally, the driver slammed the brakes. We stared
in silence at a ramshackle house, its exterior thoroughly stripped of paint.

     The three got out, walking up to the screen door just as it swung open. Out stepped a
thin, ancient white couple. The man wore suspenders holding up baggy pants. The
woman wore an ankle-length dress with a gingham apron tied around her gaunt middle.
The five entered the house, both the screen door and wooden door closing.

     The yard contained a bedraggled garden of wilted tomato plants and a fallen trellis of
blackberry vines. A withered apple tree stood near padlocked doors of a cellar that led
below the house. They’d slash my throat and bury me beneath the cellar floor. The couple
wouldn’t have greeted them so warmly if not for my imminent murder.

     Eventually, the front doors opened. The couple intoned encrypted words to the men
as they approached the car. In that brown bag the driver carried was the killing knife or
handgun. I released all fear, accepting extinction. It wasn’t difficult, why all the fuss
about the utter dissolution of the body. The driver opened the backdoor, thrusting the
small bundle at me, daring me not to be afraid. I assumed he offered me the means to
kill myself.

     “Here.” Here? Was that how the end came?

     I couldn’t speak, instead peeling back the paper. It was white bread, and I lifted the
crust seeing a thick, sliced red onion, with sprigs of parsley atop it. The onion burned
my mouth as I chewed, stinging all the way down.

     The couple waved as the car left the yard. The driver turned on the radio to a Daven-
port station. Solomon Burke sang, “Just Out Of Reach ( Of My Two Open Arms ),” and
the car swung through rural fields and thickets, finally back to Route 16. It turned north,
heading to Burlington where I’d be dropped off. I responded to Burke’s country soul,
tapping my feet as the others listened, the men singing with inspiration the song drew
from them.

     They let me off on the outskirts of Burlington.

     “We couldn’t let a young guy hang by his lonesome back there in St. Louis,” the
burning-ulcer man said.

     “I thought it was hopeless,” I said. “I was really fucked-up.” I stood on grass, off the
highway, my head tilted toward the open window.

     “Hey, college-man, nothin’s so fucked that we can’t change it,” the older man in the
backseat said.

     “More to life than just getting a degree,” I said. Vehicles roaring past made words
difficult to hear.

     “Just because you’re going fast don’t mean you’re getting anywhere,” the driver said,
leaning over so I’d hear.

     “I should’ve gone slower, been more careful,” I said.

     “Slow can kill, too,” the driver said. “Maybe now’s the time for going uptempo,
breaking speed limits, forget all their damn laws.”

     “I’d like being in that car, watching the rearview mirror blur everything out,” I said.

     “We all want to be on that ride,” the driver said.

     “Change the whole shooting match,” I said, not certain they heard me as the car
merged with traffic.

     That was 1963, before the March on Washington, before the JFK and Lee Harvey
Oswald assassinations, before Malcolm X’s murder, before the Gulf of Tonkin and the
war in Southeast Asia, before the Bank of America got torched in California, before the
FBI’s COINTELPRO destroyed the Black Panthers, before four Kent State students were
gunned down in peaceful protest against the Vietnam War, before the Weatherman
faction set fifty bombs off to demonstrate resistance against the system, before rest of the
shit-storm predicted by Norman Mailer, before I quit The Movement, before I did the
pipe and became a crackhead, before I went into a detox center and cleaned up, before I
married and had two children, before I had a mental breakdown, going psychotic, before
my family left me, before my shrink had given me meds causing my heart attack, before I
started receiving federal and state disability checks, before this Section 8 apartment
which I’ve had for twenty years, before I sat in these dark rooms, before thinking of a
woman I’d known who’d been at my side while we stole $30,000 from a small branch
bank in upstate New York to finance underground resistance against the brutality of
America, how we thought of ourselves as Partisans combating the Nazis, before we
split up, before she leaped from the Golden Gate Bridge, before I read her letter in my
hand at this moment, Nothing matters anymore, she wrote, It’s like some malicious code
has deleted me, she wrote.

     I folded the letter back into its envelope. I asked myself: What do I believe in? I sat in
darkness for an hour, trying to answer, until knowing I believed in nothing. I wouldn’t
plunge like her, though. Where had all that energy come from, climbing high to the
suicide spot, going dark-wing, then oblivion. So I’ll continue, always glad waking up
alive the next nada-day, committed to nothing, to nobody. How simple life really is.


George Sparling has been published in many literary magazines including
Tears in the Fence, Lynx Eye, Pittsburgh Quarterly, Red Rock Review, Hunger,
Paumanok Review, Word Riot, Rattle, Pindeldyboz, nthposition, Snake Nation Review,
Thieves Jargon, and Prose Toad. He has a short story in the winter, 2004 issue of
Slow Trains and one in the January, 2005 issue of Laura Hird’s Showcase.

He has had many jobs including a welfare caseworker in East Harlem, a lumberyard
laborer, a placer gold miner in the northern wilderness of California, a bookstore clerk,
a postal mail carrier, a crab butcher on the early morning killing docks ( those were the
days of big hangovers ), and a salmon processor ( I flung fish around all day ).

He has a degree in English from Iowa Wesleyan College, is now in early retirement and is
writing short stories as well as working on a memoir about his relationship to his father,
focusing on the years after leaving home. He tries through prose to give all dark things the
light they require to exist unconditionally.







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