Wet mortar. That's the closest comparison I can draw to how dark grey the clouds were on that particular afternoon in west Texas. The sky itself was a ghostly white; you could see it dying out over the flat horizon. It made those blackened smudges of clouds look like evil silhouettes. There was a bit of a chill from one last mid-April cold front sweeping faintly through, but rain hadn't broken overhead yet. It was coming, though. Seemed like rain was always coming my way back then.
Look, the point of this isn't to squeeze you for pity. That ain't me, and that probably ain't you. I get that. And let's face it: I'm no tragic figure here. I'm a strip club owner from Queens. I got more rides and pussy than I know what to do with. A sympathetic pat on the head's a cherry on top I don't need.
So when I say it seemed like rain was always falling on me, I'm just setting the stage. My wife had finally left me, like she should have three years before. My little girl Becca went with her. My two oldest boys, Ronnie and Anthony, stuck around 'cause Dad's got money and puts gas in their tanks. Ungrateful little trolls. Still learning from the best.
But what happened on that day was an event in another person's life. Yeah, I'm still Nick Steranza, entrepreneur, hustler, whatever you wanna call me. But that Nick Steranza, out on that road, under that sky...sometimes, I think I'm still waiting to run into that guy again. It's like I wake up, look in the mirror, and instead of seeing the slimeball I was okay with being forever, or instead of seeing the guy whose Harley broke down on the interstate in the middle nowhere and lived a day removed from his own existence, I just see nothing. There's a guy staring back with no sense of identity. Some bum who lost the directions somewhere.
Maybe I'm just waiting to run into Jarlo again. Maybe I think he was the one with the directions. Maybe I just want to know how his story ended, so I'd know what the hell to do about mine.
It was about a year ago now. Two p.m. central. Like I made a big fuss of already, cloudy day. I'm doing eighty on mile five hundred of west Texas nothing when I hear my bike's engine cut out dead. Now, they don't really ever do that. They'll spurt, and growl, and hiccup, sure, but it's rare to have a bike engine just go so dead so cleanly. Immediately, of course, I know this ain't just bad, it's effed-up bad. I coast it to the right shoulder, and hop off to scope it out.
Fuel pump was good. Alternator was only seven months old. Attachments were secure. Didn't overheat. I stood up from that inspection completely perplexed. There was nothing wrong that I could tell. But when I went to turn it over, the damn thing acted like it had no juice at all. Silence. I was screwed.
I remember looking west and east, and thinking how much it would suck to even try walking to the next exit in biker boots and the whole rider garb I was in. So, I take out my phone that I still overpay for, and guess what? No reception. Ain't any towers out there, unless you count the dried up oil derricks. That left me with one route: hitchhiking.
The last time I had hitchhiked anywhere, I was fourteen. Steppenwolf was playing in Newark, and as far as I was concerned, making it to that show was a life and death situation. So me and a couple pals from school hopped across the island and through the Holland Tunnel riding in the backseat of a '58 Buick LT, driven by some older punk who was too stoned to turn us down. He picked us up a mile from my old man's house, and hardly said a word the whole trip. That worked out fine. You could do that kind of nonsense in '69. And of course, the old man didn't give a fuck what I did, either.
Having your thumb up in the air these days is likely to get you nowhere. When you're well over fifty and a little overweight, though, that's probably further than your legs will carry you. I stood there by my bike, checking my phone for a signal, watching cars zip by on the open road. Traffic ain't exactly the Long Island Expressway out there, which limited my opportunities all together.
So I leaned against my custom-built hog, thumb in air, thinking about the tons of shit that had happened between seeing Steppenwolf in their glory days and the multivitamin I'd gulped in the motel room this morning. It took about twenty-five non-panicked minutes of rumination before the truck came.
Ford Ranger, late nineties model, dark green. I could hear the issues with the drive train before it even started slowing to pull over. The guy driving came to a stop about fifteen yards ahead. I walked up the shoulder, checking out the bed. It was full of branches and limbs of all sizes. I doubted there was any kind of useful view out the back window. I wondered how important this load was to this kind samaritan. This mishap would've turned up roses if he'd be willing to ditch it in favor of my Harley.
I could see his head turned through the back glass. The guy was watching me walk up to him the whole way, being cautious like anyone should be in that instance. Or at least that's what I had assumed.
The passenger side window was already down. I ducked my head in. It was a black guy, maybe ten years younger than me, kind of thin-set, wearing a black Astros cap (that was another terrible year for them). He kept looking from me to out the back window.
"Hey, I appreciate you stopping," I started off with, using the my time-tested business table smile. This guy kept glancing back, like I had a posse back at the bike waiting to jump him. He just kind of nodded.
"It's just me," I told him, trying to calm him down. "Yeah, my hog broke down. Would it be okay if I stuck it in back of the truck?"
This schmo looked at me like I just shoved a glock in his face.
"Whoa, alright, no big deal," I backpedaled so I wouldn't lose my window. "Could you just take me to the next exit? Like a gas station? Anywhere with a signal, really."
He looks out the back window, then to me, to the window, then says to me finally, "Yeah, yeah. Okay."
"Awesome, thanks," I told him as I got in. I shut the door, and took it upon myself to hand crank the pane back up.
"Awfully nervous, huh?" I pointed out. "Got some weed or something in here?"
He gave me a strange look, and kept checking his rearview.
"You should share if you do," I joked. That went nowhere. "Uh, I'm kidding, kidding. Yeah, so uh, I'm Nick."
I waited for his name in response. I got nothing.
"What's your name?" I pried.
"Jarlo," he said real quick. Back to the rearview. The guy wasn't a fountain of self-disclosure (my shrink uses that word). I mean, I can be a chatty Cathy myself, but this fellow was falling well below the mean.
"Yeah, I'm actually from New York. Been doing a cross-country haul on my bike. Been meaning to for years, but, things just now fell into place. Y'know?"
Didn't even nod. It got quiet.
"Hey, mind if I turn on the radio?" I asked out of desperation.
Lightning cracked a white hot line across the wet mortar ahead. I spun the volume button until it clicked on. What do I hear?
Well, you don't know what
We can find
Why don't you come with me--
Then Steppenwolf was submerged in garbled static. After a few seconds, it only got worse, so I turned the radio off. That was an eerie moment, I'll tell you.
"Think the storm's killing our signal, man," I said.
"Huh," he laughed.
Jarlo shook his head.
There was a lot of nothing going on roadside. I wondered whether the next exit was two miles or thirty away, and then tried to imagine how I could possibly make this trip less uncomfortable.
"You're from around here?" I asked Jarlo. He shook his head, glanced behind his shoulder again.
"Okay, so, where are you from?" I pressed.
"DiVidier. Louisiana," he reported.
"What, you got folks out this way?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Nah. No folks out here."
I paused for further explanation. Of course I didn't get any.
"Then you're out west of San Antonio because..?"
"You see them clouds up there?" he goes. "You see how they be looking like that?"
Well, I saw how they looked, but I didn't know what the hell that had to do with Jarlo of DiVidier, LA, driving west for hundreds of miles with a bunch of sticks.
"Sure, Jarlo, but--"
"Them clouds been following me. Them clouds after me."
Ah. That was the point when I silently nodded to myself that, yep, this dude was confirmed cat-bags.
"What do you mean?" I argued anyway, because I'm Italian and you don't just not argue when someone says something stupid. "Those clouds are ahead of you! You're driving into them! That’s why you keep checking behind you?"
Jarlo responded with the predictable shaking of his head.
"And it ain't no storm messing with the radio," he went on. "The Devil's speaking through it. Makes it sound messed up."
Okay. So the guy was certifiable. I was still getting somewhere, and sitting inside a moving vehicle beat playing lightning bait on the side of I-10.
"Listen," he told me when I said nothing, and turned the radio back on. I couldn't even pick out the music this time; it was a wave of pulsing static.
"Just change the station, Jarlo! That's not so hard, eh?"
I began turning the knob, working the old digital scanner up from the nineties up into the hundreds. A minute later, I'd had no luck.
"We're practically in the desert out here. Why would there be a signal?" I tried to reason with him.
"You ain't listening to it," he countered. "Listen to when it gets low. That's him. That's his voice. Don't sound like you and me."
I heard what he was talking about. There were bass drops in the fuzz, some with some roll to them.
"That's just interference from something else," I said. "More static. That's all."
"Ain't heard no music from that thing since I started," Jarlo said. "Not 'till you first got in."
I revisited that weird moment in the context of the black-on-fading white clouds out the windshield and the sickly light that passed for late daytime. Yeah, okay. Jarlo gave me the chills there for just a second.
I checked my phone to change the course of the conversation. I had a bar. There were two things I'd learned to do with this phone so far: text ex-girlfriends, and save numbers to speed dial (only 'cause Ronnie had shown me after I nagged him long enough). I dialed up AAA, and waited patiently for a ring.
It didn't come. I tried a few more times. Then I tried to call my latest girlfriend, Nina, to see if she could coordinate something. Same issue with the call not connecting.
"Man, this is...crap," I summed up. I leaned my head against the side window, and sighed.
"So, Jarlo, why are the clouds after you?"
Jarlo gave me another nervous look. He was hesitant to say the reason.
"Well? Come on," I prompted.
"I got the Devil in back of the truck. Under all those branches."
I was speechless for a moment, then laughed. I swung my head in the direction of the bed. "Is that what he's saying over the radio? 'Get this shit off me'?"
I fell into a few cackles there. Couldn't help myself. I pictured a guy in a red suit with a pitchfork pressed up against his chest, all like What the fuck? I wasn't a racist before, but now, after this guy, I dunno...
"You laughing, but he's back there. I promise you. The Devil himself," Jarlo testified with total conviction in his voice. Most of that conviction came out as fear. I tamed my response a bit.
"So that's what you've been checking up on back there," I assumed with a slow nod. "Is that why you picked me up, too? Back-up?"
This time, he actually looked at me when he spoke.
"When you first got in, you smiled at me. You smiled at me, but with the Devil in your eyes. I could see it. But I think, with you, he comes and goes."
The way Jarlo had put that really struck me. I felt like I was wearing my sins on my jacket. Was I that fake? That see-through? And if so, was that really what others thought was under the facade? The Devil?
"You don't know me. Okay? I don't care what you see," I defended.
"I know eyes," was all he said.
"Yeah, you know hauling sticks," I jabbed. That hung in the air for four or five silent minutes. I watched the sky ahead of us streak with lightning.
"Didn't say it was just the Devil," Jarlo said, I figure trying to apologize. "Wouldn't have let you in if it was just the Devil."
I still had one bar. I was hitting the number for AAA again when my traveling partner said something that I had to hang up to consider.
He said, "We ain't just bad, and we ain't just good. We pick sides each day we wake up. Today, I think you wanted to pick good. I think you're trying to pick it every minute. Just don't think it's easy."
"But I can," I told him. Don't ask me why, alright, but I felt myself kinda tear up. It was sort of like, someone else had verbalized what I'd just been feeling over the past year or so. That gave me the chance to do the same, to actually declare out loud my intentions. Kind of made this internal struggle thing, I don't know, real.
"It's never been easy. But I can," I reiterated.
The daylight suddenly went from dark to practically night time. Jarlo turned on his headlights. The cab of the truck felt colder.
"He don't like that," he said, staring in the rearview. And so I found myself turning around and examining the jagged branch pile through the back glass. It was so dark now that the detail was lost. It was a colorless stack of black crevasses.
"We all picking sides," he said. "Every day."
I turned back around. "So how'd you get'em, eh? Old Goatfeet there in the back, I mean. Prayed real hard?"
Jarlo nodded. "Lots of praying. Lots of acting. Lots of not acting, too."
I gave him a funny look. Yeah, I didn't expect a rational, sane explanation. But even that was too vague for my tastes.
"What, you didn't wrestle him down? Hog tie him?"
"There was plenty of wrestling," Jarlo said with a smile. "We still wrestling."
I nodded. "What are you gonna do with the poor schlub? Where you taking him?"
My compadre was quiet for a moment. Seemed like he hadn't thought that part out yet.
Finally he decided, "I'm gonna take him to the police."
"Makes sense to me," I agreed. Why not? At least there was some logic there. "But even I've beaten a tax evasion charge before. You gotta figure the guy's got a hell of a lawyer."
I actually got Jarlo to laugh, which made me laugh harder.
"You know, I think the creepy sky's clearing ahead. Maybe you're in the free, Jarlo."
He got quiet again after that. I tried to keep the kindling of convo going.
"Why the branches, huh? Why not some cinder blocks or bricks? I know some people who've done creative things with carpets."
"Those branches from a tree that grew from the grave of a righteous man," he explained, and offered nothing beyond that.
"Ah. Okay. So, righteousness sort of...grew out of him in tree form?" I tried to clarify.
But that's when the hail hit. At first, I was dead sure we were getting shot at. I ducked my head and everything. Jarlo came across spooked, too, but luckily didn't pull the move I had. He stared up at the sky, his eyes bugging out like boiled eggs. I personally had never seen hail before, but I came around to the idea.
"Is this hail?" I asked him.
"Yeah, it ain't big stuff, but..."
"But what? Shouldn't we pull over or something?" I suggested. Jarlo shook his head one defiant time.
"No. The Devil ain't stopping me," he declared. "I gotta do this."
So I bit my lip, and I let Jarlo drive. You don't know me as a praying man, and I didn't start there, but I was sure as heck doing a lot of wishing. And wincing. I thought every pop against that cracked windshield was gonna cave the whole damn thing in on us. Then we started to slow. There was an exit on the right.
As we turned north, the bits started pelting the driver's side rather than the front of the Ranger. I eased up a little bit. The off ramp swung us around to a beat-up two lane street that ran between some fenced-in ranch land.
"You sure this is the right exit?" I asked him. "This area doesn't seem too commercial."
"There's a gas station down here," he answered in an absent-minded way.
"You're not from here, how do you know?" I asked.
"God spoke. I listened. He said this where we need to be."
Oh, man. That's when the crazy shit went from cute to a little scary. I checked my phone--two bars. I tried AAA again, and this time the call went through.
By the time I finished, we were slowing down. Jarlo pulled in front of a shack of a place called Donovan's Feed Store. This would be as good a place as any to part ways.
"God sent you to a feed store, huh?" I mused as I unstrapped. "Nice."
"God sent you here. I'm still on my journey to defeat the Devil," he informed me.
"He's already defeated. He's in a wood pile. The rest is clean-up work, right?" I hopped out of the truck. He followed suit. The hail had stopped falling all together. There was just that chill in the air to contend with.
"I need you to watch him for me. I gotta go to the bathroom," he requested. I'm guessing he had been pissing next to the truck up until then.
"Go for it," I consented. He headed into the store. I pulled out my phone again, and started to call Nina. Then I decided not to. Not just yet.
I found myself at the side of the truck, leaning over the bed. I wanted to know if Jarlo had anything at all under those damn branches. It kind of felt like I had a right to know.
I pressed my hand against the side of the pile. Yeah, okay, I was checking to see if anything was kicking in there. I didn't see anything move. I started digging in among the limbs toward the bottom. I wasn't hitting anything.
Caught deep in the tangle, though, was a piece of material almost the same dark green shade as the truck. When I yanked it free, I held it up and kinda snorted. It was a thong.
"Looks like you're the real devil here, Jarlo," I joked to myself. I plied deeper into the sticks.
I pulled out a white bra next. There was blood on it.
Now I started tossing the sticks out of the bed. There were more panties, at least four more pairs by the count, three of them for sure blood-stained. There was another bra sticking out from the bottom of the pile. There was blood on it too, with long hairs matted to it. I wanted to believe this was just one of those fetish deals I saw sometimes in my club. But that’s not what this looked like. It looked like shit from a crime scene.
This time, I took out my phone, and dialed 911. If this guy was a serial rapist, or worse, killer, I couldn’t let him just sail on down the road adding to his collection. This was a chance to do something good and selfless. This was an opportunity to actually look out for other human beings, not just exploit them. Maybe it was because I was in the middle of nowhere with no one I knew around me. Maybe thinking outside of those circles freed my brain, or soul, or something. But I didn’t even think about just walking away and keeping my mouth shut. That still stuns me when I consider it. Like I said earlier, who was this guy reporting this crime?
The 911 call didn’t connect. And Jarlo had just come out of the feed store. He walked across the rickety wood porch, across the dirt parking lot, and came straight up to my face.
“You been watching that Devil?” he asked.
I retried 911 again as I spoke. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ve been watching.”
When he didn’t say anything, just stood there while I put my phone to my ear, I tensed up and swallowed. I had a bigger frame that him—he was a fairly skinny guy, Jarlo, and though I ain’t the brick wall I use to be, I’m still some kind of wall—so I felt like I could take him without too much trouble. Wildcard was I didn’t know if he was packing.
The 911 call failed again. I put away my phone with a frustrated huff, and looked him square in the eye.
“Can you wait for me, Jarlo? I wanna try the next exit,” I tried to con him. I wanted to get to a better phone in the store. “Let me run inside and take a leak real quick, alright?”
“Can’t wait,” he told me with a head shake.
“Hey, come on! I thought we were buds here. You and me versus the Big D! Come on, I’ll just be a second—“
I walked past him, toward the store.
“Stop,” he said angrily. I turned around. Yeah, he was packing. Nine millimeter. Looked like it needed to be broken down and cleaned.
He was holding it down, aimed at my feet. Most chumps who draw down on you like that ain’t gonna fire. But he was also loopy as hell, so that didn’t mean diddly shit. Not to mention he’d probably used that gun before.
“Okay,” I nodded. “Okay. Just…let me come with you, alright? Let me help you get where you’re going.”
“You gone far enough. I see that Devil coming back in your eyes. You can’t help me no more,” he concluded.
Jarlo glanced at the back of the truck, then backed toward the driver’s side door. He got into the cab. He had the gun up at the wheel at this point, but I knew I was too slow to rush him effectively.
“He ain’t gonna let you call the cops, neither,” he told me after starting the engine back up. “This be between me and him. He ain’t gonna let anyone else fight this fight.”
As he slammed his door shut, I yelled at him.
“Jarlo! Keep picking the right side! Alright?”
He hesitated, nodded, then mouthed back, “You, too.”
The truck drove off. I thanked my stars he was crazy enough to let me live. I went into the feed store, explained the whole nuts-ass thing to them, and they let me use their LAN line to call up the fuzz. Thus ended the Jarlo excursion.
That whole damn thing is still so out of place in my life. I get up, I have coffee, I check my stocks and watch the news. I check in at the club, I shoot the shit with the regs, and I even tell them about the cross-country ride I took last year. I don’t ever tell them about Texas, though. Talking about Texas is like speaking another language. Yours, I guess.
And every day, I’m still trying to figure out just what the devil was said. Pun intended. I do know that before, I didn’t find myself occasionally wondering what some schizophrenic rapist-murderer, or whatever he was, was up to at the moment. I guess ‘occasionally’ is understating it. More like every time my mug hits that mirror. Every time I wonder if I missed a chance to pick the right side.
But, you know…you got something else to say, just say it. Let me know if I’m doing this life shit right this time. Or whatever. Amen.