(an excerpt from “Danny”)
The children smoked all his cigarettes. They didn’t even ask. They just swiped them whenever they felt like it.
“You really shouldn’t smoke so much,” said Lon Barney.
Then he added, “I mean, you shouldn’t be smoking at all.”
“I can quit whenever I want,” said the kid. He snapped his fingers and said, “Like that.”
“It’s also totally against the law.”
“Yeah? That’s totally why I do it.”
The kid had an answer for everything.
Lon Barney looked at the girl’s brown eyes and heard, I’m not even addicted. I enjoy it.
Wow, you really do have the most communicative facial expressions, thought Lon Barney.
“Hey, watch the fucking road bitch!” screamed the kid while yanking at the steering wheel. They’d been just about to swerve into a cornfield.
Lon Barney, all nerves, shouted, “Both of you will stop smoking this instant! And that’s final! The last word on the subject.”
They drove on in silence for a while. It felt good to be out of the city. Tall stalks of corn shimmied in the breeze on either side of the road like something from another planet, a living corridor drawing them into the future. It was like a dream the fields were having.
They stopped at a gas station.
“Get me some coffee,” said the kid.
“Get your skinny ass out and pump some gas then. All you do is talk.”
“Don’t be such a fucking faggot, Lon.”
A woman with a red beehive hairdo waiting in a parked car said, “What?”
“Who taught you,” said Lon Barney. “I mean, who in this world is responsible. . .”
He barely understood what he was trying to say.
“Lotsa sugar, lotsa milk,” instructed the kid.
“Yeah, like I didn’t already know that. And I suppose the girl takes it black, right?”
“Jesus, she’s just a little kid, Lon. She doesn’t drink black coffee. Get her a root beer or something.”
Lon Barney looked at the girl. She smiled but didn’t say anything.
Coffee, root beer.
He left the kid pumping gas and staring mistrustfully, as if hunting for minuscule errors or outright felonies, at the numbers flipping on the machine (it was one of the old ones with numbers that flipped on little tabs) making sure the keys were in his pocket, safe and sound, and went into the store – CONVENIENCE MART – those words were painted on the wall gigantically in an eye-crazing shade of purple – where everything was so aggressively convenient that walking through the door erased half your memory. You were lucky if you could recall your own name.
Lon Barney snatched – somewhat furtively, the prisoner of his own futile shame – a bag of corn chips off a metal rack, and when he turned around, the foil bag crackling in his grip, Henry David Thoreau, or some guy who looked exactly like him, loomed up out of the plastic floor and glared at him, dug right into him, from five feet away.
What the. . . ?
He let go of the bag of corn chips. It hit the floor with a crackle.
There was a man standing in front of him who looked exactly like Henry David Thoreau. Total dead ringer. In the CONVENIENCE MART. Just like the picture, the one where his eyes looked so pale. Like ghost eyes. Eyes that saw through the walls of time, all the way to the keyhole on God’s front door.
Yes, Lon Barney had read Thoreau. Even The Maine Woods.
He glanced out the window. The kid was still pumping gas, standing there with his hand on the nozzle, his head cocked sideways, staring at nothing–or everything–listening to the numbers flip. The girl waited in the front seat. She caught his glance. She took a drag off a cigarette (in brazen violation of his decree–and at a gas station no less!) and blew the smoke out the window. Smiled. She was generous with her smiles.
Thoreau was still there when he turned back around.
It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t even make crazy sense.
“You all right there?”
“I’m fine,” said Lon Barney.
“Dropped your chips. And now you’re just kind of standing there.”
Thoreau stooped over and seized the bag of chips, swept it up, displaying a wonderful animalistic dexterity, a clean 19th century grace–in the CONVENIENCE MART–and handed it to Lon Barney.
“Thanks. I’ve got this hip. Seizes up on me.”
“Saw you limping a little.”
Before he had a chance to stop himself Lon Barney said, “You look exactly like Henry David Thoreau.”
The two men looked at each other for a long moment without saying anything.
The guy said, “Yeah, well. . .”
Lon Barney took a bottle of root beer out of the cooler and poured out two cups of coffee in Styrofoam cups–lotsa sugar, lotsa milk–paid for everything (taking a cash advance of 30 dollars on his credit card without even thinking about it) and headed out the door. Thoreau was right behind him. Accompanying him? Worried he might fall? Did he look like he needed assistance?
The kid was walking around the parking lot.
“What’re you doing over there?” said Lon Barney.
“Oh, nothing.” Then he said, “Nothing.”
“That your son?” said Thoreau.
Lon Barney said, “I don’t know.”
Lon Barney needed a cigarette. He looked at the girl. She shook a cigarette out of the packet, stuck it into her lips, lit it, and transferred it to his lips.
“Thanks, buddy,” said Lon Barney.
“Isn’t she a bit–you know–young for that?” said Thoreau.
Lon Barney could see Thoreau’s ghost eyes in the rear view mirror. They were fastened onto his own eyes, staring straight into his brain.
“Oh, I’ve warned her,” said Lon Barney. “As a matter of fact we had a little chat about it this morning.”
“Doesn’t seem to have done much good.”
“Ah,” said Lon Barney. “You know how kids are. The future doesn’t exist for them. Tomorrow is just another today.” He shifted into fourth gear and coughed out a small blue laugh.
The boy had gone silent–aggressively, aggrievedly, massively silent. Now and again Lon Barney saw him turn around and look at Thoreau, but he hadn’t said a word to anyone since they left the gas station.
Thoreau–whose real name everyone forgot as soon as they heard it, because he looked so much like Thoreau–even people who had never heard of Thoreau were thrown by it (he just looked so 19th century)–had finagled a ride, explaining that his car had broken down on the highway and he’d walked to the gas station for help. But as soon as Lon Barney pulled out of the gas station parking lot he said, “I am a terrible, terrible liar!” and he confessed that his car hadn’t broken down at all, and, not only that, he didn’t even know how to drive. Had never bothered to learn. What actually happened was that he’d gone out for a walk in the cornfield behind his house, got lost, followed a stream until he found the highway, then walked to the gas station and hung around, reading magazines, unsure of what to do, unsure of where he was, afraid to ask for help, waiting for somebody to notice him. He’d been helpless. And he’d felt completely disoriented and paranoid in the CONVENIENCE MART. Now he just wanted to get home and feed his cat.
“What an ordeal,” he said. “I walked for miles and didn’t see anybody. Just fields, trees, birds. Rocks. Everywhere I looked–rocks. Christ, what a lot of rocks there are in this world. Too bad you can’t eat the things.”
“No,” said Lon Barney. “See anyone out there?”
“Not a living soul. I thought God had given me the boot, cast me into the wilderness. It was like I’d stepped through an invisible doorway into a world without people in it. Just a lot of rocks.”
“I thought I was going to die,” confessed Thoreau.
“That part doesn’t sound so good.” Though you get used to it, thought Lon Barney.
“The only thing that got me through it was playing my fiddle. Or pretending to play my fiddle. I had to imagine I was playing it, since I’d left it at home.”
“Imaginary fiddle,” said Lon Barney. “Never heard of that.”
“It’s not imaginary,” said Thoreau, “I just didn’t have it on me.”
Lon Barney glanced at the mirror. “How long were you out there?”
“I don’t know. A week maybe.”
“A week? Holy shit! God!”
“I’d almost given up hope. Then I found that stream. It saved my life. Someday I’ll have to find it again and repay it by giving it a name.”
Is there a stream in this world without a name? said the girl in a mocking tone.
“But how can you get lost for a week around here? You can’t chuck a stone without hitting some shitheel property developer in the earlobe.”
“Mister, there is a hell of a lot of corn out there.” Thoreau gazed out the car window. “A hell of a lot of corn. And it swallowed me alive.”
Lunatic, thought Lon Barney. A week? Whole fucking week wandering around the fucking cornfields?
“This world is gigantic sometimes.”
“You must be pretty hungry,” mumbled Lon Barney.
“I ate what I found. Corn. Mushrooms. Other things. It kept me going.” Then he said, “It sustained me.”
Lon Barney waited for more information, but it looked like Thoreau was one of those guys who liked to be asked to reveal what he knew. He enjoyed the little mysteries he created. Savored them.
“What other things?” obliged Lon Barney.
“They’re easier to catch than field mice. It’s like they’re just waiting around for somebody to snatch them up. I hit a rabbit in the head with a stone, but it scampered away. I lost it.”
The kid said, “You eat them frogs raw?”
“I stuck them on a stick and roasted them over my campfire. It wasn’t so bad. And perfectly natural. Probably even healthier than my regular diet.”
“Frogs aren’t mammals,” said the kid.
“That’s true,” said Thoreau.
Lon Barney said, “I didn’t know you could still get lost around here.”
“Oh, you can, you can.” He nodded enthusiastically.
“But it’s just a few cornfields. And roads. You didn’t see any roads? Or hear any cars?”
“Not for several days. No.”
“That’s amazing, just amazing. I’m. . . I’m. . . gobsmacked.”
Lon Barney held onto the steering wheel. The girl touched his forearm and gave him a reassuring squeeze with her absurdly small hand. Immediately he felt better. About everything. But there was no way he could understand what had happened to this strange man, wandering for days in the cornfields, lost to civilization.
“I’d always felt like there was something out there,” said Thoreau, glaring at him in the mirror. “Beckoning to me. Calling me. And I needed to find it, I needed to know what it was, but I never imagined it was so gosh-darn big. So empty, so–so endless. It was terrifying, to be honest. I’m just lucky I found that stream. Otherwise I’d still be out there, romping down the cornrows, playing my fiddle.”
After a moment of contemplation, he said, “A wandering specter.”
“Eating frogs,” said the boy.
“That’s right, said Thoreau, “eating frogs.” He shook his head and said, “A gosh-darn frog eater.”
“Eating frogs is un-American,” said the kid.
Lon Barney had heard of people getting lost in forests and in the mountains–but here? “I didn’t hear anything on the news,” he said.
“No, I’m not important. I’m no one. I keep to myself.”
Then he said, “Never one for making a splash.”
“No,” agreed Lon Barney.
“Doubt anybody would have noticed I was gone. Maybe my ex-wife. She wouldn’t call the police though. Not unless she thought I was dead.”
“What’s your ex-wife’s name?” asked the boy.
“What? Why you want to know that for?”
“Vivienne. Her name’s Vivienne.”
“Hah! No one who knows her would ever use that word to describe Vivienne. I myself wouldn’t.”
Lon Barney said, “Wow, a whole damn week. And you don’t seem too bad. You’re even pretty clean.”
“I’ve got the worse sense of direction in the world,” said Thoreau. “That’s why I never learned to drive. Out of fear. I’d get lost every day. I’d never make it home at night. Driving forever. From one edge of the land to the other. Out there. Looking around.” He squinted into the distance as if he were remembering the future. “So I just stay home and potter around my little cabin in the woods.”
Lon Barney said, “You got a cabin in the woods?”
“Made it myself.”
Then he added, “Well, from a kit. With very detailed instructions. In several languages.”
“Is it by a lake?”
“Let’s eat some fucking pancakes,” said the kid.
“I don’t have any money,” said Thoreau, unfazed by the kid’s vocabulary.
“Frogs,” said the kid, “you can eat a goddamn frog.”
“I’ve got thirty-five bucks,” mentioned Lon Barney.
He twisted the steering wheel and guided the car into the parking lot of a roadside diner. No one said a word. The girl looked at him and smiled. He wasn’t sure why, but he knew he was doing the right thing.
The kid was first in the door. He seemed to know the place. The girl took Lon Barney by the hand and led him through the double doors past a rack of gumball machines and newspaper dispensers: there was a picture of Danny on the front page of the local paper. Oh Christ. Danny smiling like he didn’t want to die. Danny looking for all the world like a normal person, a man with a set of car keys in his pocket.
He heard the girl’s voice say, Don’t worry about that now. Let’s just get something to eat.
You’re right, you are absolutely right, thought Lon Barney. How did you get to be so wise?
She smiled: I was born wise, but I usually try to forget it.
Lon Barney knew nothing of children–or he knew as little of children as it was possible for anyone who had once been a child to know–but he suspected that the girl had just fobbed him off with a bullshit answer.
Whatever. He didn’t care. If she gave him bullshit answers from time to time, she must have had her reasons.
Thoreau was in there with the kid already, sitting in a booth, a huge metal sugar dispenser on the table between them. Paper placemats. Silverware (cutlery Lon Barney always thought but never said–his mother had said cutlery) wrapped in paper napkins like canapés for a robot. Ceiling fans rotated at high speed not far from the tops of their heads, blowing their hair around. A fat man with pointy sideburns and a dainty woman with a tattooed neck were holding hands in the booth across the aisle. They were dressed in leather motorcycle gear, each with a helmet beside them on the seat. They could have been anyone. Lon Barney didn’t care who they were. Just didn’t care. Then he realized they were his neighbors. What the hell? Did they always dress like that? He’d never seen them at close range.
Thoreau and the kid were arguing.
The kid said, “This is America.”
“You have no call to insult me,” said Thoreau.
“You talk like a redneck.”
“I’m not the type of person you think I am.”
“You don’t know what I think,” said the kid.
“I can deduce.”
“Deduce this then.” The kid flipped Thoreau off from the other side of the table.
Thoreau said, “I am . . . I’m just . . . And who’s more American than a redneck!”
The kid chuckled. “Or vice versa.”
“You awful little savage,” said Lon Barney in growing admiration.
The waitress happened to be standing over them, pencil in hand.
She cleared her throat and said, “I was just wondering if any of you were ready to order or something?” She spoke like she’d just woken up and found herself cast in this unfamiliar role, as if she’d never done this in her life.
“Pancakes,” said the kid. “We all want pancakes.”
“Honestly I never cared for pancakes,” said Lon Barney.
“You are in the wrong place then,” said the kid. “Probably the wrong country.”
The waitress said, “The pancakes are good here.”
“See, man? I told you.”
“I’d rather have an omelet,” said Lon Barney.
“That sounds good,” said Thoreau, “I could go for one of those myself.”
“I can’t fucking believe this,” said the kid. “An omelet? We came here for pancakes.”
“Should I come back in a minute or two?”
“You got somewhere else to be?” said the kid.
“Yes and no.”
“A cheese omelet,” said Lon Barney, decisively. “ Peppers, onions, mushrooms. Runny inside.” The waitress scribbled onto her pad.
His neighbor, the male, suddenly stood and walked up the aisle between the booths. He glanced at Lon Barney but didn’t betray anything in the way of neighborliness.
The girl put a cigarette in her lips but didn’t light it. The waitress stared at her, aghast.
The kid said, “She’ll have a full stack with chocolate chips and whipped cream–that’s what she always gets. I’ll have a full stack with regular syrup. No blueberry shit or anything like that. Regular maple syrup out of a tree. But no butter. Can’t deal with butter.”
“What’s the matter with butter?” said Thoreau, combatively.
The kid shuddered. “Hate butter. Hate it.”
“Well this country might as well have been founded on butter,” said Thoreau, doing his best, for some reason, to egg him on. He paused for a moment, waggling the fingers on his left hand (playing that fucking fiddle again, thought Lon Barney) then he said, “We are butter.”
The kid laughed and said, “You just keep telling yourself that.”
Before they could settle their order Lon Barney’s female neighbor noticed him and waved–or no, it wasn’t quite a wave, it was more like she was signaling with her hand, or even half her hand, two or three fingers–like she was telling him he had something on his face, a little spot of bird poo maybe or–but, wait, was she indicating his blot? He touched his blot. It was getting worse. Then he waved back, a normal wave, which caused everyone at the table, including the waitress, to turn and look at her. She smiled and seemed to be on the point of standing and coming over to them–for what, thought Lon Barney, what could she possibly want with me–when someone in another part of the restaurant bellowed, “You son of a bitch!” and there was a loud crash. Lon Barney’s tiny female neighbor vaulted over the divider between aisles, her leather jacket creaking and cracking and straining against itself, and hopped onto the back of a man who was wrestle-waltzing with her–boyfriend? husband?–in the doorway of the men’s room.
“Will you look at those people?” said Thoreau.
“I will not,” said the kid. “I hope I never see those people again.”
“Ah hell,” said Lon Barney.
“I want to see some round American pancakes,” said the kid. “In my face. Right now. One drop of butter, though, and I fly face-fucking-first into that fucking ceiling fan. I swear to fucking God.”
Thoreau said, “I’m sorry, but are you going to finish that? It’s just I haven’t eaten much all week. . .”
“What?” said Lon Barney.
“Your omelet. Are you. . . I mean, if you’re not going to . . . can I . . .”
Lon Barney had barely touched his omelet. Thoreau had his fork clenched in one fist and his knife in the other, spiking them into the tabletop like a character in a cartoon. His plate looked like it had just come through the dishwasher.
Lon Barney said, “Knock yourself out.”
Thoreau snatched the plate and slid it across the table. Lon Barney lit a cigarette.
Right away a woman in the next booth leaned over and said, “Not that I mind? But there’s a no smoking sign directly above your head?”
Lon Barney turned around and looked at the no smoking sign. There it was.
“I thought you might like to know,” said the woman in a whispering voice.
Had it been there when he’d sat down? Who could say? Not him. At that moment, as he watched Thoreau scarf the remainder of his omelet, it seemed reasonable to assume that someone had crept up behind him and fastened that sign to the wall as some kind of joke as he’d sat there–and then that moment passed.
The girl was sitting beside him eating her chocolate chip pancakes, whipped cream all over her chin. Without looking at him, she said, “You’d better put that out before you get yourself in trouble, Lon. The police are still here.”
Yeah, he thought. Yeah, you’re right, darling. As usual.
“Hey, Lon, you look real tired,” said Thoreau, his mouth stuffed full of omelet. “I mean, all of a sudden, you look. . .tired.”
“Yeah, I been tired, H.D. I been real tired.” Lon Barney continued to smoke his cigarette for a moment, then he put it out on his plate. “You mind if I call you H.D?”
“That’s why we’re going on this little vacation of ours,” said the kid. “It’s for Lon. He needs it. He works too hard.”
“Did I mention that those biker-types were my next door neighbors?”
“You did not,” said Thoreau.
“Well, they are.”
“Isn’t that strange,” said Thoreau.
“Everybody’s starting to look like that,” Lon Barney mused. “Everybody in America is slowly transforming into some sort of biker.” Then in a slightly more confidential tone he said, “People are forgetting that TV shows aren’t real.”
“Wow,” said Thoreau, obviously taken aback. “I never thought of it like that.”
“Yeah,” said Lon Barney. He pushed his fingers into his gut and belched. “It’s tragic.”
The waitress wandered up and down in her short passageway between the booths. She put her elbows on the divider wall and leaned over their table and sighed with an air of someone taking a short rest among friends. She asked if they wanted refills on their coffee. Nobody wanted more coffee. Nobody wanted anything for once.
“When you get off?” said the kid.
“Hour,” she said. “Little less. Why?”
“We’re on a cross-country expedition. Thought you might like to honor us with your company.”
“What a charmer you got there,” she said to Lon Barney.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “We’re all very proud.”
“Headed north,” said the kid. “Space for one more in the car.”
Lon Barney sat there, waiting for them to stop talking.
“All the way up to Canada, you think?” said the waitress.
“Maybe. Ever been there?”
“Oh, once or twice. Ages ago. Not much up there though. Just some trees, people. Greenery. Lotsa cars. Pretty much like here. But lacking something or other. I don’t know what. Something you can’t put your finger on. Whatever the hell it is, though, they just don’t have it.”
“The Canadian dollar is not worth as much as the U.S. dollar,” announced Thoreau.
“We are not crossing international borders,” said Lon Barney, testily.
“I never been to Canada,” said Thoreau.
“Canada’s not like crossing a border,” said the kid.
“Are there uniformed customs officials blocking the highway, giving everybody pop quizzes? Do you have to stop your car?”
“You have to stop your car,” said the waitress.
“Well that’s out of the question then.”
“You got something to hide?” she said. “You afraid of them Canadian police?”
God, doesn’t this meddling twat have anything better to do? Why are people growing out of me like feathers?
“I own a hardware store,” he said. “My little brother is a dentist.”
George, he thought, fucking George. Pursued out of the womb by a dentist!
The waitress formed a frosty smile with her face.
“A family of small business owners, eh?”
“Do Canadian police have guns?” asked Thoreau. “Are they modernized?”
“They could easily take you down,” said the waitress, “with or without firearms.” She laughed. “You have such gentle eyes for a man of your stature.”
“What does stature have to do with anything?” said the kid, sticking his chin out, making a show of being offended.
“I had this friend once? Drove up there and got himself arrested. They put him right in jail and wouldn’t let him out again.” After a moment she added, “Public disturbance.”
“Boyfriend?” said Thoreau.
“Oh God, no! Rodney?” Laughing, almost hollering, she reached over and cupped Thoreau’s cheek. “What a darling you are!”
Lon Barney said, “How much do I owe you?”
She stroked Thoreau’s sideburn for a while, as if she hadn’t heard a thing, then she abruptly tore the check off her pad and set it in front of Lon Barney. Without looking at it, he pulled out his wallet and offered her a twenty. She snatched it and wandered off to the cash register at the end of the aisle and completed this sudden, brisk transaction as if it had nothing to do with anything. Nobody looked at anyone while she was away. She came back with the change on a tiny wooden disc, like a plate for a gnome, and set it on the table in front of Lon Barney.
“I stuck a couple Canadian quarters in there,” she said. “For good luck.”
“For the last time, we are not crossing into Canada. We’re just not.”
“That’s what you think, mister.”
Oh no! said the girl. Then she gripped Lon Barney’s arm and vomited her pancakes back onto her plate.
Photo by Richard Hemmer on flickr