I got a warm bed in back of my pickup truck where I sleep with all the fleas and mosquito hawks. Only thing wakes me are cops. They come at night and peek in my camper window to see if I’m on drugs. They knock; I wave. I get out and chat, and all I’ve got on are my choners.
Sides all that, and in spite of cold air that comes in the camper shell’s broken slide window, my bed’s warm. Use a good pillow I got Christmas twelve years old. It’s sort of greasy or sheened with grease, but right amount of softness and girth, and sends me drooling into some pretty good dreams.
Can’t cook in there now cause the hotplate failed some time ago – I think in Santa Cruz. Lame wire or something. So, I cook outside on the barbecue, hunched low. Not sure that’s good for my knees, but anyway.
In fact, don’t cook on that thing neither these days cause I take my supper at work. Work cooking tacos in town, this little place attracts mechanics and accountant-types and nurses.
There’s this morning routine, where I lean forward in bed, plug in the kettle, make myself coffee. I can reach my coffee stuff from bed long as I sit up. Don’t grind beans in the truck, cause that’s too much, but I load a filter with pre-ground, pour water over, and make a nice, cozy pot to sip while the sun rises. I’m staying out by saguaros and Joshua trees and some RVs and semi-trucks. They make a nice view in the morning from that one window in my truck’s camper shell still uncracked.
Keep the kettle plugged and plop in a couple eggs to boil. Stole them from work, and I steal corn tortillas and avocados and hot sauce, all of which I combine into the same warm breakfast every day, all the while, you know, just sitting up in bed, watching the outdoors, waiting for the neighbors in their vehicles to emerge, which they do, but only to stroll, aching, to the public toilets under the rotted gas station’s canopy.
Clean up dishes, then read stolen library books. Gotta keep up on kelp beds and sharks and sequoia trees and the California coast in general. Read inside if it’s cold, still laying in bed, warmed by coffee. Hot days, I sit outside on my beach chair. No ocean here and no surf, but sitting on the beach chair, close enough.
Quarter to ten I drive my truck into town, though lately it’s been making a troublesome popping racket, hopefully not the engine. Order to give the truck a rest, last couple weeks been skateboarding to town. First part of the trip is rough on the board’s wheels, too much pebbles, dust, and other nuisances make the board go wobbly or outright stop, but once I hit the condos near town and their glassy sidewalks, it’s smooth skating.
So, one of those days, skateboarding to work, passing the condos, I saw a weird flyer on a telephone pole.
Rolled past the flyer. Twenty feet later turned back. No rush. Watch said nine AM and work didn’t commence til ten. Always gave myself plenty of time.
Skated back to the telephone pole, stared at the sheet of paper stapled to the wood. One of those job posting things that usually say something like “Want to make $1000/day working from home? Call: ###-####.” You know, the little fringed phone numbers at the bottom you can tear free.
Except here, a scrawl of permanent marker:
“IN NEED OF FRIEND
Come to Mesa Park
Stuck the flyer in my pocket. That was Monday.
That day and the next I got crazy into work to keep my mind from spinning about this person who wants a friend. Who doesn’t want a friend?
I stared at meats chopped and pummeled by my metal spatula. Thoughts disappeared – foosh – in the mounds of beef and pork and the tripes. Flattened homemade tortillas in ocher grease and chopped my spatula into the cactus and peppers and onions. I mashed and flipped until grease got everything bubbling in warm, steamy funk. Removed victuals, slathered them on tortillas. Slung more raw meats and tortillas across the grill. And, as I said, disappeared into the food.
Meanwhile, asked Rosa, “You mind I leave early Wednesday?”
“What’s this about early?!”
We’re usually slow around that time on Wednesdays. I promised Rosa that I’d get the cleaning done early and leave things tidy.
Come Wednesday, got swamped with orders. One point, twenty-four tacos grilling at once. This due to mobs of high schoolers from about three o’clock onward. Popular kid must have proclaimed our fat-drenched tacos “radical.” Seemed gluttony consumed the entire high school.
Watched the wall clock as it moved past four, then five, then six. Finally, scraped the grill clean around 6:45.
Pumped like hell on my skateboard, risking a wipeout and shredded face. Still, didn’t reach Mesa Park til just past 7pm. Hour late, hardly anyone there. Who knew which of them needed a friend? Assumed not the four or five children wearily climbing the splintered jungle gym in blue shadow. Guessed not two peppy gals speed-walking the park’s boundary. Not the homeless cowered in dark lumps against trees and benches.
I saw someone standing, like me, still and watchful.
We approached each of us the other at once.
Though not life nor death, I felt nervous. “How’s it going?” I said.
A lanky guy, my age, wiry and tousle-headed. Barely made out his face in the dusk. “You looking for a friend?” he said.
“Sure, why not. What you got in mind?”
He said, “Guess we could shoot some pool. You a drinker?”
“You bet I am.”
Felt weird at the tavern. They knew him but not me. His name was Zorro, of all things. Not a nickname, he claimed. Zorro blundered at pool; so did I. Yet, he drank well, I did too, and by the end of the night we emptied three pitchers of beer and moaned breathy tales, me unraveling my journey – got him up to date on my pilgrimage for waves, but skipped my reason for staying here, land-locked, rather than continue to Southern California; maybe another time – while he detailed the gruesome injuries to which he was privy as emergency room receptionist.
Skilled at detailing mangled limbs and lost eyeballs, Zorro maneuvered away from the personal, info that, for example, could explain why he wrote: “IN NEED OF FRIEND.” Or was it a question: “IN NEED OF FRIEND?”
Maybe we ordered a fourth pitcher. I lost track.
Next morning, head felt like ground beef. The truck steamed and smelled of dirty microwave. Weren’t for work, I would have remained bedridden, hiding from life, sweating it out. Coffee helped somewhat, suppressed the initial surge of bile. Then, that stink of boiled egg turned me over, and I hucked up a mouthful of puke in an old paper cup. Dumped the cup outside, walked to the toilets, and sat on the cold, metal seat for a while.
Drove the truck to work, though that engine rattled in protest. Anyway, no way to skateboard in my state. In Rosa’s kitchen, belching old beer, got chopping and prepping. Ate a couple corn tortillas stuffed with melted cheese and nopales. Brain stopped hurting, but my face ached. Strange.
Must have looked pretty ruined, because when Rosa got in at eleven she said, “Jesus, what on earth?”
“Drank a little last night.”
“Look at you, mother fucker!”
“It’s called a hangover.”
“I never seen anyone so ugly!”
Touched my face: tender, clammy, swollen. “Am I cut?” I said.
“Don’t let no customers see you. I mean it! I’ll fire your ass!”
In the taco shop’s bathroom, saw my face. One cheek lacerated. Ear swollen. Eye purpled. That explained the scrapes and bruises on my arm. Guess I had been too hungover to notice my knuckles, shredded and swollen too. Must have eaten shit on my skateboard. That, or brawled.
Nothing to it, but to resume cooking. Inhaling the grill’s greasy incense settled my mind, and the steaming chili peppers worked heat into my gashes and cuts. Near the end of that shift, Rosa told me someone had come for me. “I oughta call the police,” she said.
“Who is it?”
“Someone with a face like you.”
If I could fight drunk I could sober, so I strode to the dining patio to face my adversary. He hunched in a chair, drank cola out of a bottle. With a straw. I flipped my dishrag over my shoulder to look tough. Felt tough. Guy’s face worse than mine.
“Well,” I said, “What the hell do you want?”
“What happened last night?” he said. His voice came out grated jerky.
“You got some nerve bothering me at work.”
“You told me to meet you here,” he said. Realized it was Zorro, my new friend.
“Yeah, man. You want me to leave?”
I sat down. Neither of us wanted to look at each others’ faces. “Who did we fight last night?”
Zorro met my blood-shot eyes. “It was us, man. You and me.”
“You don’t remember any of it? Our, uh, disagreement?”
“I remember pouring a third pitcher.”
Zorro squinted; was he smiling? “But not the fourth or fifth?”
“Five pitchers? Jesus Christ.”
Rosa banged the window. “I gotta go back in for an hour or so,” I said, “You wanna stick around?”
After work I drove Zorro to the church outside town, the white one. Parked there, I explained my vision, why I stopped in this town, why I stayed. “Before I go on to South California, I need to make peace with that church.”
Zorro took my mumbo-jumbo pretty well. We cracked some hair-of-the-dog, a forty-ounce of malt liquor. Filled a couple coffee mugs. Tasted like week-old sourdough bread. Sitting on the tailgate of my truck, regarding the church, and getting all warm from the beer, Zorro told me why we fought.
“We got to calling each other liars. May have started as wrestling or something in the lot out back. I think we were kicked out. Or, maybe the bar closed.”
“I’m not much of a liar,” I said. It was true.
“You denied putting up that flyer about needing a friend.”
Zorro topped off our cups. He said, “You said I put it up.”
We resolved to find the person responsible for the flyer. Felt like a revenge movie, one in search of a happy ending. I also promised surf classes.
First surf lesson took place Sunday afternoon at the park. An ideal location to recon the flyer-maker while Zorro learned the sport of kings. Lugged my surfboard out of my truck, across the park, and motioned for Zorro to watch.
“Here’s how you take the fin off.” Unscrewed the fin.
“Don’t you need the fin?”
“Not here. Might break.”
Near a tree, away from hazards, laid the finless surfboard on a picnic bench. Removed my shirt, laid on surfboard, and scooped palms into the air below.
“Paddling into a big one,” I said. “Here comes. Alright, see how I’m paddling harder. Now I’m in, couple more paddles, gotta be quick here…and leap up!”
Jumped to my feet, wobbled a bit, but managed to keep balanced as the rickety bench creaked beneath. Crouched low and looked straight ahead, saw the wave face rippling and curving in upward flow. Here came the barrel. Pumped my legs a couple times then crouched low. The wave became a violent cylinder exploding against the shallow reef. Staying low, dodged the wave’s menace and felt cool spray against my naked back. Barrel spit me out and I straightened. “Woo!” I said, jumped off the surfboard. “That’s how you do it.”
After Zorro knocked the bench over a fifth time, we moved the surfboard onto grass and resumed. He nailed the paddling in the prickly lawn, was even so-so at popping to his feet, but his stance remained wobbly and awkward, a real kook – though I kept that to myself.
“Nice job, bro, you’re really getting it.”
“You gotta really see it. The ocean. The wave. Feel it.”
“Know a public pool in town?” I asked.
The YMCA lifeguards forbade me from deploying the surfboard, so we floundered around on blue lap-boards. This is how you duckdive. This is how you straddle your board. This is how you take a wave on the head. This is how you hold your breath.
Short-breathed and bloodshot from all that chlorine, we sat in my truck and smoked Zorro’s clove cigarettes.
Zorro reduced the radio volume and said, “So what’s this about some church?”
“That one off the highway? Man, it’s my vision. Like I said.”
“I know what you said. Still don’t get it.”
“Not easy to explain.”
“But it’s the whole reason you’re parking it out here. Because of this church?”
“Because I need to go in the church.”
“Well, let’s go in,” said Zorro.
“C’mon. What’s with you?”
“Then, let’s go.”
“Fine,” I said.
Dust blanketed the church parking lot. Sun wasn’t quite down, but air felt cool. We put our shirts back on and I attempted an explanation of the vision. Avoided words like “evil” or “darkness” or “terror” or “emptiness.” Instead, described things I had experienced: corridors that paralyzed movement; physical connection to the church through vomit; the smothering personality of the rooms; and the way thoughts flowed through a nauseating chasm which leaked into eternity. Should have just said, “evil,” but did not.
“So, this all happened in your dream?”
With Zorro there, the church put on a kind face. I said, “No. It wasn’t a dream.”
“You said it was a dream.”
“No,” I said. “I was reminded of this place in a dream.”
“Uh, okay. Are we going inside?”
“If you want.”
Zorro gripped my shoulder and turned my face towards his own. He put his other hand on my other shoulder. Thought he might kiss me. Instead, he said, “Listen. Don’t be afraid. I am here with you. We are friends. Friends have little use for fear.”
Not such a big deal, approaching the church. You just take one step then another. The clove smoke pooled in my guts, circling something.
“Is it open?” Zorro said.
Hoped for locked doors. Zorro turned the knob. To my relief, the door kept closed.
“Let’s check for windows,” he said.
“Sure,” I answered. Did not mean it; Jesus, felt like my voice arrived after an incalculable span of oceanic migration.
Followed Zorro round the church’s flankside. Flip-flops jostled the dust, dirtied our damp ankles. Temperature seemed to plummet. Why else would I shiver?
“Aha. Here’s one,” said Zorro.
Did not know what he meant. He tried to lift a window. Oh yeah, we looked for a window. To what? To climb in? Did not know. Knew nothing. The world faded. Swept into memories. Echo of my vision. Cold shadowed floors. Paintings on walls. Unknowable. Who drew them? Did not know. Once again, I was lost. Zorro’s hand pulled me from my reverie.
“Hey. You okay? We don’t need to do this. Wanna bolt?”
My words came out, “I think I should go.”
“Excuse me,” said someone. “Excuse me, sir.”
An older woman – well, older than us – long, straight, gray hair and ironed yet faded jeans walked to us.
“I hope you’re not breaking windows,” she said. I believed her a phantom materialized out of air. More likely, she popped out of the Airstream trailer parked back of the church.
Zorro took over, “Hi, miss. Church open today?”
“I thought you said something,” she frowned, “about breaking windows?”
“Not us, ma’am.”
“Teenagers like to throw rocks and break em. Look at these: beautiful, magnificent stained glass. Fifty years old. You don’t find glass like that anymore.”
“They’re exceptional,” said Zorro.
“But don’t see any rocks, do you? Not anymore. I went around, picked up every rock for…for miles and hid them. Back-breaking. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
“Sounds like the Lord’s work.”
“Too late to save the windows up front. That’s why I boarded em up.”
“We didn’t even see any windows up front.”
“They’re boarded up.” She directed her smile at me, guess suspicious of my muteness. An echo of mom. Least wore the same jeans.
Zorro gripped my shoulder, “My pal here stopped in this town for the sole purpose of glimpsing the insides.”
She twinkled with disdain or mischief or fear; said, “Sure you’re not here to make trouble?”
Zorro said, “This boy is burdened with a holy vision. A call from the beyond. He’s a pilgrim, ma’am. He must fulfill his quest.”
Lady departed for seemed an hour, but must have only been minutes. Meanwhile, I stared into blue gradients as Zorro chattered about surfing. He conveyed his ignorance with gusto.
Emerging from her trailer, she scooted past us in socks and sandals. “Come on,” she said, “It’s already late. And my news starts in ten minutes.”
She unlocked the church’s front doors. Pushed them open. I stepped inside. Shadows wavered before my adjusting eyes. The woman reached for a switch and I opened my mouth for once: “No. Please keep them off.”
Looked into shadows. Surprised at the two rows of pews. Surprised by the pulpit. The regularity of it all. Where holy water once puddled, a dry basin. The dozen images on the wall depicting Christ’s last journey.
I was, in a word, perplexed.
“You alright, buddy?” asked Zorro.
She said, “Mind if I turn the lights on?”
The lights flattened the space, removed any inkling of evil’s presence, and accentuated the afternoon’s shift to dusk.
Zorro somersaulted down the aisle, “Woo-hoo!” At the crosses and candles he stopped and knelt. Meditated there, or prayed.
The woman sidled up to me. Short in stature, she whispered inaudibly.
I said, “What’s that?”
“Not the same, is it?”
“You expected something different.”
“I don’t know. But, I guess. Yeah.”
“You know,” she said, “Woman came a few years ago. Spent a month locked inside. Didn’t leave once. Completely alone. Nothing came out but moaning and worship songs. And when she left, she took it.”
“You know, whatever it was.”
“So it was here?”
“That’s what they said.”
“But not anymore.”
“No. Power and glory to Jesus.”
Zorro sat by the pulpit, picked from a pile of stones, and stacked them into cairns.
Mosquito hawks danced around us. As usual, we listened to the country station played Hank Williams and such. Zorro asked me to pull my truck over.
“Look. Up there,” he said. “Did you see?”
“Someone put a flyer on that pole. He got in that car.”
“That VW Bug. It’s starting to move.”
“You sure they put up a flyer?”
“No. But what if?”
The VW Bug had already turned a corner. I drove after. Near the telephone pole I slowed to check the flyer. Zorro said, “No, no. Just go! We’re losing him!”
Maybe Zorro had seen someone posting flyers. Or, maybe the VW driver had been chucking old beer cans. Or, had pulled over to piss the bushes. Had pulled over to… You just couldn’t know.
The radio murmured. Truck’s heater warmed our dusty shirts and chlorine-moistened bodies. A balmy perfume of sweat and dust filled me with nostalgia. Zorro read my mind and cranked up the radio. “This is a good one,” he said.
This should be where my story ends. We should lose the VW Bug. It was dark, after all. And that would be that. We would resume surf lessons. I would grill meats and chilies at the taco shop. Zorro would collect emergency room forms.
Found myself driving slower, and Zorro did not protest. We each had a friend, why seek another?
“Wait, wait,” said Zorro.
Had driven past the VW Bug. Pulling over, I turned off the ignition. Opened my door to chilled air, colder than at the church. Zorro offered my flannel. Put on the flannel. We approached the person, long-haired, using a splayed-open stapler to fasten the flyer to the telephone pole. Or so it seemed from our angle.
Not a man.
The young woman turned to face us.
“You looking for us?” said Zorro
We were old testament prophets.
A boy peeked out of the passenger side of the VW. Strangely unfazed by our approach, the woman put her hands on her hips.
“We come in peace,” said Zorro.
She said, “What is it?”
I said, “We know what you’re looking for.”
“Really?” she said. Straight brown hair, past her shoulders. Dressed like someone out of a 60’s time machine. Young version of the woman at the church; judging by this girl’s face she could not be past early twenties. Like us.
Zorro nudged me and pointed to the flyer. A dog’s portrait. The word, “REWARD.” A phone number. The dog was ugly.
“Hey,” called out the boy in the VW, “Who are them?”
“So, you know about Gonzo?” she said.
Zorro reached his arm around my shoulder and said, “Ma’am. We are here to help you find your dog. Whatever it takes. You give the word. We’ll do it. We’re the local do-gooders.”
“Whatever,” she said.
“Hey, don’t want you to feel weird or anything,” said Zorro. “So, why don’t we meet later tonight, shoot some pool, discuss our plan for locating Gonzo.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Zorro explained he went to high school with her. Candy, or Sandy, or something. Maybe Andi.
To my surprise, she arrived at the bar precisely at nine. We shared a few pitchers of beer. She revealed a morbid detail: Gonzo died beneath a Ford truck.
“I just put up those flyers because my little brother’s so attached.”
“That’s nice,” I said.
In drunken stupors we agreed to unite regularly, commune, and build bonds. The malt-sopped promises, deep in the night, were consummated in a shared hug. In that moment, holding Zorro and the girl, I felt, for odd reasons, all alone again.
Next morning, wrote down my dad’s phone number for Zorro. Left it at the emergency room.
Sensed the onset of dark lines. A swell from the Aleutians. Rumblings from afar. The waves were calling.
Time to leave.
I left. They stayed.
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
Guests are gifted a Shallow Creek visitor pack consisting of a map of Shallow Creek, a character profile, a specific location, and an item of interest.
These items shall act as a source of inspiration as Mallum Colt guides his guests through Shallow Creek and reveals the secrets and stories of a town bereft of sleep.
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