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Bareknuckles Pulp No. 27: Just-So Story

We don't normally go for the moral of the story here at the Bareknuckles Pulp Dept., but we made an exception in this case. Worth recalling next time you see a car abandoned by the side of the road. 

And no, we're not going to offer apologies to Rudyard Kipling.

Just-So Story by Warren Moore


I

I slowed the Malibu down, stopped and picked him up at a sign that said I was 44 miles from Muncie, Indiana, just past a sign that said I was leaving Rushville. He thanked me for stopping and said he needed a ride to Muncie, back to campus at the University. The late afternoon sun reflected off the green hood as I told him I could take him as far as New Castle, and then I asked him what university. He said Ball State, and I said I had heard of it, but didn’t really know anything about it.

“It’s okay, I guess,” he said, adding that it wasn’t like he had been to enough colleges to be an expert about it. I smiled and pushed the scan button on the radio, settling on an oldies station. As Every Mother’s Son started singing about getting some girl to come on board their boat, I asked him what he was doing hitchhiking on a Sunday evening. He said that he had come down to Greensburg with his girlfriend, and they had a fight on the way back and she left him to make his own way home from Rushville. He said he had lost count of the cars that had passed him going north on Route 3.

“Most folks won’t pick up a hitchhiker anymore,” he said. “You’re a lifesaver.”

I laughed, but reminded him that I couldn’t take him past New Castle. He said it was okay – he was sure he could call a buddy to get him and bring him the rest of the way. I asked him why they couldn’t have come to Rushville, and he said he thought it just seemed too far. On the radio, Smokey Robinson started to sing about how the smile on his face was just there to fool the public.

We rolled between cornfields, and Smokey was the only one who said anything for a couple of minutes. The kid asked me what I had to do in New Castle. I told him I was in sales – farm equipment parts - and had a meeting in the morning. He said he thought my job would be interesting, and I knew he was lying – nobody thinks selling tractor parts is interesting, and I didn’t think he was going to look at my catalogs – but I thought it was nice of him to pretend. It grew darker, and the radio and gauges were the only light in the car. He looked out the window at the corn along the east side of the road.

The sign said we were twelve miles from New Castle and he was still looking out the window when I took the .22 revolver out of the driver’s door map pocket very quietly, switched it to my right hand and shot him behind the left ear. The nice thing about a .22 is that the gun doesn’t have the power to push the bullet all the way through someone’s head – if it’s a .22 short, anyway. The slug goes in and bounces around in there. No mess to speak of. I read somewhere that hit men like to use .22s for this kind of thing. I don’t know if that’s true – it was just something I read - but it seemed to work here. He slumped forward and I unfastened his seat belt and pushed him below window level. About ten minutes later, I drove into a large cemetery just south of New Castle. I killed the lights and headed for a corner some distance from the entrance. I reached across and opened the passenger’s door and rolled him onto the dead grass along the one-lane road. Then I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, made a couple of sales calls the next morning, and headed out, driving east toward Richmond and maybe later to Cincinnati. Nothing was mentioned on the radio news that afternoon as I left town.

II

God I hate hitching. You try to stay clean while you walk along some blue-dotted map line and suck exhaust fumes. You can’t do it, and that’s the problem. It seems like nobody wants to pick up a hitcher, and a dirty hitcher is even less likely to get a ride. Except from some old freak – and I’ll never ride with them – well, almost never. They want too much.

But I like the freedom, you know? I’ll go wherever the road takes me, and I’ll work where I have to. My dad told me that a good fry cook could find work anywhere, and he hadn’t been proved wrong yet. Of course, I hadn’t seen him since I was a kid and I’m almost twenty now, so he could’ve been wrong a lot since then. What did I know? But I still learned to fry cook in vocational school, and I made enough to get by wherever I went. I just didn’t like any of the places I had been so far, right?

So I was somewhere between the Waffle House in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and a truck stop in a town I hadn’t been to yet. And it looked like a long night and my sleeping bag and the sound of cars passing by on US 31. Sometimes you roll craps.

And sometimes you make point. An old Ford Econoline van with a Deadhead sticker on the back window passed me and I saw the brake lights flare as it stopped about 100 yards ahead. The passenger’s door swung open and I got in with an older guy who looked like Tommy Chong.

“Thanks, Bro,” I said.

He grinned, said it was no problem. I looked around the inside of the van and saw some of the same camping-type stuff that I had here and there.

I asked him where he was headed and he said there was a Rainbow Gathering near the Red River Gorge. He said it was some kind of Sixties throwback – a bunch of freaks get together for a weekend, smoke bowls and sit in circles playing drums.

“Sounds cool,” I said. “Mind if I come along?”

“No problem,” he said. It seemed to be a favorite saying of his. We rolled through the night. After a few miles, he pulled an enormodoob out, fired it up, took a major hit and passed it to me. I took a smaller hit and felt the buzz in the soles of my feet, competing with the vibration of the floorboard. A few miles later, I shuddered and told him I was gonna be sick. He laughed, but I told him I meant it, and he pulled the van over. I was doubled over like I was trying not to puke, and when he reached across to get the door I pulled the knife out of my boot and told him to get out of the Ford. He should’ve just pushed me out and hit the gas, but he didn’t think of it. Not his fault, really – it’s not like this happened to him all the time. So he got out of the van and we walked away from the road, into the woods.

After I was finished, I left him where they would probably find him during deer season and found my way back to the van. I found a map at the next gas station and followed it to the Gorge. It was a great party – nice people.

III

As I drove the Chevy down through Ohio to Cincinnati and into Kentucky, I thought about the kid from Indiana, and added him to my mental ledger as Lesley Gore sang about Judy’s turn to cry. That’s a great thing in America – you can almost always find an oldies station. I had tossed the .22 into the Ohio river at Cincinnati, but it didn’t matter. You could always find other guns, and it was time to change approaches anyway.

The kid in Indiana had been the fifteenth, but only the fourth I had used a gun on. It’s harder for them to build a profile that way. Men, women, old, young. Sometimes a gun, sometimes a knife, some rope, or a tire tool, or bare hands, and one I drowned in an irrigation ditch out west. Change the method, change the disposal – quarries, wooded areas, shallow graves, no graves, the river, the New Castle cemetery – it’s all about looking random.

Well, they were all hitchhikers, of course, but that isn’t even much of a profiling aid. I mean, just watch television and you’ll see that when you stick out your thumb you might as well put on a shirt with a bulls eye on it. It’s practically a suicide note.

So that was fifteen, but they probably hadn’t all been found, and some they might never find at all, except for the occasional souvenir. And number 16 would be soon. I felt the tension in my forearms already. It came back faster and faster now.

I stopped at a flea market in Richwood, Kentucky, just off I-75. There was a whole table full of knives. I paid cash for a nice one with a bone handle.

IV

I never knew the girl’s real name. She was just one of the hippie chicks at the Rainbow Gathering. But she smelled better than most of them and was excellent in the sack. That was why I was so bummed when I woke up Sunday morning as people were leaving and she wasn’t in my tent. But I was even more bummed when I saw that the van was gone too. But it wasn’t like I was gonna call the cops – and like they say, if you love something, set it free, right? Anyway, I still had my camping gear and my knife, and I caught a ride with someone who was going back to Lexington. I found a motel on North Broadway there with a restaurant and worked there for a week – the only white guy with a bunch of Mexicans, and bailed after my first payday.

“Language difficulties,” I told the boss.

I caught a bus across town and started walking along US 27, looking for a ride south again. I knew, though, that I was gonna have to get a car soon to replace the van I had lost.

But you know it isn’t really the cars, or the peckerpuffers either. I know it too. I think what it really is, is seeing the look on their faces. It’s like you’re just another clown when they pick you up, and then they realize that you’re their God. When it’s too late. It makes me feel like the Lone Ranger or something. My secret identity. There was a song I heard in the motel kitchen one day when I got to use the radio for something other than “Mi corazon” music. I sang the chorus to myself – “Me and my knife Excalibur, we gonna have some fun.”

A green Chevy Malibu hit the brakes as it passed me. There was an older guy driving. I thought he looked like a homo, but that was okay, maybe even better. I felt Excalibur resting inside my boot.


V

I picked the kid up. He said he was about 20, but he looked like a fifteen-year-old girl. Not like the kid in Indiana. I wondered if the girlfriend at Ball State wished she hadn’t tossed him out of the car. But then, I had tossed him out too.

We were between Stanford and Waynesburg when he said he was feeling carsick. He doubled over as I pulled to the side of the road. When he sat back up, he was holding a knife and he told me to get out of the car.

“Fine,” I said. “You don’t have to do anything rash.”

“Rash?” he said, and laughed. “I thought you were a sissy. Come on, fella. Into the woods.” I went, with him a couple of steps behind. I felt my flea market knife in my coat pocket and worked it free as the woods enfolded us both.


VI

And that’s how abandoned cars get to the side of the road.



Born on Jim Thompson’s 59th birthday, Warren Moore (blog Facebook Twitter) is Professor of English at Newberry College in Newberry, SC. His first novel, Broken Glass Waltzes,was released in February 2013 from Snubnose Press. He lives in Newberry with his wife and daughter.