Back From The West
Mark Smith

"Go this way, asshole."

"No, you miserable simp."

"That's a one-way street for chrissakes."

For over a decade, through a dozen houses in two states, I have kept these eight pages: double-spaced, typed on the back of scrap paper, fastened together with a rusty staple. Some phrases and even paragraphs repeating like an echo, or like we really lived it more than once even that night. Now here they are again, beside my keyboard, the rambling, incoherent log of the night of January 1, 1980, the first night of a bygone decade. Start again, middle of page three.

"Go this way, asshole."

"No, you miserable simp."

"That's a one-way street, for chrissakes."

The car careens across three lanes of the empty avenue and up a one-way street. Almost immediately, a siren sounds behind us: the same cop that has followed us since we stopped the car in the middle of Guadalupe at three o'clock in the morning.

Bobalouie, huge and imperturbably drunk, has been driving. He pulls over to the curb cautiously. The stop lights at most of the intersections are set to flash at this hour. Guadalupe looks like a carnival with no people. None of us -- Riddle in the front seat with his brother Bobalouie and me in the back -- say anything.

Black cop, young guy, climbs out of his car and walks up to us, the faint edge of uncertainty or fear showing around his eyes. I'm thinking, this must be a textbook drill in the academy: carload of drunks cruising deserted streets in the middle of the night.

He asks for Bobalouie's license, which is forthcoming without a word. He shines his huge cop flashlight on it. "Let me see yours also, please," he says to Riddle. And then to me: "You too."

I reach for my back pocket.

"Hold it!" he says, thinking of guns, I guess, afraid he might already be dead. He says:

"You guys get out of the car. All of you."

He tells us to stand on the curb. It is January 1, 1980, and cold as hell. I'm wearing jeans and a shirt, no sweater or jacket. I start to put my hands in my pockets.

"Don't put your hands in your pockets." Then he adds, "Please." His politeness in the face of adversity is admirable. As I pull my hands slowly out of my pockets, I think, I should write to the mayor and commend this officer's damn fine manners. I forget to note his badge number.

Next thing I know, Riddle is jabbering like Lear's fool. He's saying,

"Lissen, sir, this is the way it is. . . We just drove all the way across the whole fuckin' -- oh, excuse me -- the whole damn state. All the way back from Big Bend. Ever been out there? Oh, it's beautiful country, sir. And we've been drinking all day. I guess I shouldn't tell you that, but it's true. Christ, you have to drink when you drive out there in West Texas, you can't survive any other way. Anyway, well, we've been looking around for our friend's house. . ."

I tune Riddle out, I figure he's sealed our fate now. I stare into the hypnotic spin of the red and blue flashers on top of the cop car. For a minute I forget how cold I am. I figure if I can keep still for a minute and not say anything, maybe the cop'll throw Riddle in the can for standing there on the street corner and trying to be honest and Bobalouie and I can go on home.

Then, son-of-a-bitch if the cop hasn't cracked a smile. A smile! And he's telling Riddle, "Well, I can see you fellas have had a little too much to drink. Are you sure you can find your way home now?"

I break for the car, my only hunch all night paid off. I had followed my mind and kept quiet and not said one single thing. Neither had Bobalouie, but then he hasn't said a word all night. Now I'm piling back into the car hoping my beer isn't cold.

Yes. That part is exactly as I remember it. Just the same way. They had driven all day from Big Bend, unhinged by the combined forces of drinking, drugs and the long road through the vast Trans Pecos. But I don't remember feeling nervous with the cop there. Just cold. Cold as freaking hell.

"Brrr. I'm cold. Aren't you cold?"

"It'll be warm in a minute."

Bobalouie fiddles with the heater controls. We're still looking for this woman Aurora's house. Some crazy artist friends that Riddle says are the only people he knows who never go to sleep.

"But are you cold?"

"Naw, not really. Maybe a little in my toes. It was ten degrees in the desert last night."

"What did you learn on your trip that you can use in your book?"

Book? I vaguely remember Riddle had it in his head to write a book. A book about bird watching. He rambled about it for months. He had written the first chapter, even: a whole chapter on binoculars, how to pick them out, what the different lens numbers meant. All that stuff that Riddle knew about. That was why we gravitated toward him. He knew about things the rest of us never even thought about. Science and nature and sports and food. Solid, physical things which, at that time, we thought we were too cerebral to think about. Things that I've learned to appreciate more since then. I wish I had asked more about those things when he was here, when I had the chance.

"What did you learn on your trip that you can use in your book?"

Riddle begins, "I learned that the second most abundant large raptor in the desert is the Marsh Hawk. There are four orders of hawkish predators with talons in the desert. They are one, falcons; two, buteos- -buzzard hawks like the Red Tail; three, the accipiters. . ."

I think about getting up to find a bird book to check this, but keep reading instead.

"...the true hawks, they are built like buteos with tails; four, kites, represented by one species, the Marsh Hawk. Doesn't it strike you as odd, Stetson, that the most abundant hawk in the Chihuahua desert is the Marsh Hawk? Yes, I can use all of that in the book. I can make it a parenthetical remark. It was ten degrees in the desert. Did I tell you that?" I nod, and he says, "Well, did I tell you that my brother slept in the car? In the car, that pigfucker."

Bobalouie looks over at Riddle and shakes his big head. Riddle continues to rave at me over the back of the front seat.

"He took a hit of acid this morning before we started back. Ten o'clock in the freaking morning. Do you believe that? We stopped at this place in Sanderson. . ."

Sanderson. I keep a map of Texas tacked to the wall over my desk. I stand up and check the tiny print of the index for Sanderson. K-8. There it is, right where it's suppose to be. Junction of 90 and 285, middle of nowhere.

"...for coffee and his eyes are little slits. I'm scared to death he's going to freak out and push over a table or something. Nothing but mobile homes out there in the middle of the Trans Pecos, just a water tower with cars all around it and that's the whole damn place and Bob's trying to start a fight."

Bobalouie turns toward Riddle and I actually think he is about to say something, set the record straight, give his side of the story, when Riddle says, "Here's the place. Pull in here."

I flip ahead to find the next part that makes any sense: the part about Aurora. The painting was real. I remember that exactly. And Aurora was her name. But I don't remember any of the rest of it. Jesus. It's all in front of me and I have to say it happened, but damned if I remember it. I especially don't remember Bob being there with us. But he was with us all night so he had to be. I just can't remember. What else have I forgotten?

Riddle barges in without knocking. Nobody seems to mind. Several people are sitting on the floor of the small living room, but the only one I know is Aurora, a skinny woman with baggy jeans, who is an art major at the University. This is a coffee crowd and there are several cups sitting around their knees and ankles and a big crystal ashtray full of butts. There is a cloud of smoke in the air.

"Hi, everybody. Happy New Year! Riddle, I'm glad you came by," says Aurora.

"I thought it might be too late," says Riddle, pulling out a cigarette.

"No, not at all. How was your trip?"

Riddle starts in on his familiar patter we've been listening to all night so I take the tour of the living room. As I turn around, I am facing a peculiar painting which I recognize at once. It is a canvas, about three feet tall and two feet wide, on which is painted a picture of a slatternly, sullen Latina in a red, low-cut, sleeveless dress with shoulder straps. She is barefoot and very brown. But what is very peculiar about this painting is that the canvas has been extravagantly bowed outward like a sail blown by a stiff wind from behind. The effect is obviously meant to suggest an advanced pregnancy not only of the woman but of the painting itself. I had seen the painting in a student art exhibit a year before and I even remembered the title: "The Holy Virgin."

"Do you like it?" Aurora says to me. "Steve painted it." She indicates a quiet, lanky man in his early thirties sitting cross-legged on the floor.

After a few minutes, Riddle glances at Bob, hulking larger than life here in this close room and obviously out of place, and decides it is time to go before something gets broken.

Before I know it, we're back in the car and on our way out to Hill's Cafe on South Congress.

I get up and go check the phone book. I haven't thought about Hill's for years. Still there. By then we were flagging. Deep, deep tiredness was really beginning to set in, but in spite of it, I remember Riddle was still geared up. I remember him like he was still here, leaning over the back of the front seat ranting about football.

I watch out the window as we roll lazily past the junk shops and neighborhood bars that line the lonely streets east of downtown. I notice an occasional straggler winding his way home from a party, but otherwise the streets are quiet and the only cars are the ones parked along the curb.

In the front seat, Riddle continues to rave at me, showing no signs of tiring. He's onto football now, he says:

"I'm starting the eighties with absolutely no money in the world. Do you hear me? No money! So you've got to do this. Go down in the morning and get as much money as you can out of the bank and put every penny on Tampa Bay in the NFC playoffs. I'm golden on this, believe me. I've been predicting it since the start of the season."

Something seems to flash by in the air between us.

"Did you see that?"

"See what?"

"Never mind. Finish what you were saying."

I'm not at all sure what this last part means, but that's what it says.

"I would stake my reputation and my tattered copy of Tom Jones on it if I'm not right."

"You mean that if I win this thing, I collect all of this money and if I lose I lose my hard-earned cash and get some nasty old doorstop of a book you want to get rid of anyway? Do I have that right?"

Riddle shrugs hopelessly and says to Bobalouie: "What can I say? No way he's going to take this deal. Can you believe it?" His eyes trace the air in the car and he says to me: "Tell me what you saw a minute ago. I think I just saw it again."

It's not here, but I remember saying to Bobalouie earlier in the evening: "I really see you as a biker. A bad-ass biker bouncer in some killer club on the eastside." And he got really mad. He was downright indignant and mentioned it several times during the evening. I think he thought he was a gentle, mellow type in spite of his appearance. I meant it as kind of a joke, but he took it entirely seriously. That might be why he doesn't say a damn word until we get to Hill's.

Five in the morning in Hill's Cafe. . .

This is where I lose the thread. It all runs together. I wonder when I typed this part. That night or later. Maybe I slept and woke up and typed it the next day with noon coffee and loud music. Or maybe I even had the damn typewriter with us in the car that night. We did things like that then, fictionalizing as we went along.

Five in the morning in Hill's Cafe, we are carefully attended by a wizened old waitress in classic rhinestone cat's-eye glasses. She seems to know Bob. We all order the same thing, down to the dressing on our salads.

"You boys been camping, have you?" she says.

"Yes ma'am," says Riddle. "Big Bend National Park."

"Well, that's real nice. I love the desert, myself. Do a little thing where I grow little cactuses and moss and things in little logs I collect and hollow out."

We all nod at her and she smiles and goes off. We grin at each other, but before we can even start talking again, she's back with our salads.

"So what were you boys doin' out there? Just sight-seein'?"

I say: "They were collecting material for a book."

"You don't say," she says. "What kinda book would that be?"

Bob is staring at her with a distant, stoned look. I wonder if he is awake. Riddle's digging into his salad. I say, "It's a naturalist book about the birds and animals of the Trans Pecos region."

"Izzat so?" says the old woman, visibly impressed. "I'll gitchall some more ice tea."

Bobalouie points his fork at me and suddenly rumbles into speech for the first time in hours: "Don't think you can bullshit that old toadfrog. I'm tellin' you because I know. She don't hear a damn word you're sayin." He spears a fork full of salad and pokes it into his craw. "An she don't never change her underwear neither."

Riddle laughs so hard he starts to choke on his salad. Bobalouie has receded back into a Delphic silence, but he's watching his brother choke with an amused grin, obviously pleased to be the cause of such happiness.

The steaks arrive sizzling and they are just like we ordered them: Bob's is well done, mine is rare and Riddle slices off a piece of his, impales it on his fork and holds it out to me, "Ahhh, medium rare. Just like a steak should be."

We devour the food without further talk and I'm wondering how I'm going to pay for this twelve-dollar meal with three dollars in my pocket. The waitress leaves the lime-green check face down on the table and says, "Will they be anything else for ya'll tonight?" We grunt no and she says, "Well, ya'll have a good one now, y'hear."

Bobalouie pays for all of us without a second thought.

As we walk back out to the car, Riddle says: "You see there? My brother just bought three steaks at Hill's. Over forty dollars and he shrugged it off like you never would. That's why you owe it to yourself to go down to the bank in the morning and get your hands on every penny you have in the world and put it on Tampa--"

Bobalouie interrupts Riddle, saying: "Can't you understand? He's not going to bet on the game. He doesn't even like football."

"Like football?" says Riddle. "Who said anything about liking football? I'm talking about a business proposition. You don't think the people who own McDonald's eat there do you?"

The sun is coming up and I am very tired. I feel like lying in the back seat, but Bob beats me to it, so I decide to drive. Bob belches once and says, "What did you mean when you said I should be a biker? I resent the hell out of that." Then he is asleep. We climb out onto Congress Avenue on our way back to nowhere.

The cursor is blinking at me, waiting for me to add something. What can I? All I remember of that night is what is written there, which is to say that what I remember has become what I wrote, whether that was really what happened or not. It wasn't even that long ago, but it feels like another lifetime.

Why isn't Riddle here to remember for me? He could've remembered -- he was good at little details. I should've asked when I had the chance; now it's too late.

Riddle says: "Don't mind him, he's crazy. Did I tell you that he just about got us into a fight? We stopped in this little town called Sanderson and..."

He stops and looks at me. "Did I tell you this already?"

I look at him and say, "Yeah, don't you remember?"

"No. In fact, I don't remember a lot of this. Maybe I'm losing my mind."

"It's just sleep deprivation," I say.

"Jesus, that's a relief, Stetson."

"Anyway, it was a long time ago," I say.

Riddle nods. "It sure as hell was."

We drive. After a few minutes, we are downtown and the sun is rising on our right, big and orange. I remember suddenly that there are things I wanted to know more about. I say, "Tell me more about the hawks."

Riddle's face brightens and he says: "What I might not have told you is that the most common raptor in the Chihuahuan desert is the Marsh Hawk. Did I tell you that?"

Mark Smith ( lives in Austin, Texas. His first book of short stories, Riddle (Argo Press) won the 1992 Austin Book Award. His first children's book, Slosh, was scheduled to be published in 1997. (This biography written in 1996.)

InterText stories written by Mark Smith: "Back From The West" (v2n5), "Reality Check" (v2n6), "Slime" (v3n1), "Doing Lunch" (v3n1), "Snapper" (v3n2), "Innocent Bystander" (v3n3), "Sue and Frank" (v3n5), "The Hard Edge of Things" (v6n2).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Mark Smith.