|Sep/Oct 1999 Fiction|
Lugo's old bus loved the dips and bumps of the struggling road through the lava country. What used to be lava, now dry, hard, dark, cracked, a different threat. He was still good, the old guy, double-clutched around and over the rough spots like a pilgrim skirting sin, with better luck.
No brandy jumped from his free hand, to die in the dry world.
He tricked each rock, forget how big it tried to look, how fast it jumped up out of nowhere. And knew, sucked in and out too many times, the chuck-holes to ponder and the ones to spit at, where damage to the bus, or us who believed in him, wouldn't linger.
Both sides of the road were dead. Old gray-lined, young black-edged rocks threatened the sky, the size of a bull, or a truck, or a house. Or a woman. Or slept on earth's far edge and purred like hills.
The bus's snorts flew up and died in the dry air.
This trip, twenty-two of us not counting Lugo, the rest later. When our fields needed a rest, we'd go pilgrim off to Cibola and the foundries. And the barracks. From the soft grass to the hard bunks. Company pay wasn't much, but it fed the cat. That Cibola was fat with noise, no trees, no sky. You could take. As long as cold beer saved your soul at the end of your shift, you could take it.
We'd passed through here before, more times than was right, never got used to it. Now and then the silent rocks stopped threatening the sky, too far away, and turned to study us.
Looked away and ignored us again.
The first hour we sat quiet, closed, settling in. I practiced in my head the speech for the meeting: "You can't kiss your family and your world goodby and descend into a world dead to you, a world of cold streets..." I couldn't help think: "and warm beer."
The last straw. If we could blow up the cooling plant, we'd have enough days of warm beer, enough anger for a strike.
No, the Company's ready, they know the risk. They'd truck it in or fly it in or have stand-by coolers hidden somewhere.
Damn the rocks, damn the pilgrimage. The world won't go away, your babies crying like police sirens in the night won't go away. You get on Lugo's bus.
It was back home I started working on the speech. I scribbled with my butt glued to a stool in the tavern, and the noisy kids in the street and the guys shouting Get Your Papaya-Guava-Sweet Ice Cream, too sweet for grown-ups, seemed far away even when they were just outside the door. Pen and paper and beer were still cheap, so I poured it on: "From the soft grass where we play with our children and sleep with our women, to the hard bunks with their dust and roaches where we die as men." And I heard behind me: "You can't say that."
Lugo'd been reading over my shoulder, his new brandy not unscrewed yet (all these years thinking Lugo couldn't read). He didn't waste time on whatever he read in my eyes. He shook his head. "You can't say that."
"But we've got to make them angry."
"At you, who calls them dead."
He watched my half-proud face struggle with it.
I crossed the words out. He nodded, unscrewed the bottle.
"Strange," he said, "you make men live or die."
Enough anger mumbled in the air and hid in the rocks, no need to load it on the bus.
The second hour we woke up, few by few. Santos eyed me from under his brim, his face all shadow and eyes.
"In Cibola, how many you got plans for?"
"Only the sweet ones."
"Plenty free time then."
Santos laughed a lawnmower's laugh, ran a hand across his untamed cheeks. He had a soul, sure, and knew better than to fuss over it. And too few teeth left. That troubled me, though I knew worse happens.
But Calvo had the cards.
"Kid, risk it. Queen's Vengeance, new pack."
"You'll lose the shorts off your ass."
"No big thing, don't wear any."
Calvo was almost old, always, long as I remember. In Queen's Vengeance, where luck and brains run neck-and-neck, he got what he needed.
Lugo steered around the dips and bumps and rocks, and we killed time dodging the Queen's, better than stare out the window or look in a mirror. We shuffled, dealt, bid, wiped out, smoked, lied a lot, borrowed a sip from anyone's extra brandy. I took a chance, looked out the window, saw the victim sky so blue you saw the other side of it, scared clear of clouds and buzzards. No need for buzzards.
The dark land kept its silence. No mob, just one rock and another rock and another rock. Each shadow clung to its rock, shimmered, winked. No one heard the snarl.
There: a bird, brown and nervous. It stood on a rock, waited, didn't want to wait, flew away. It was a shadow, some small cloud's shadow. No, a bird, alive.
No one else saw. All mine. Queen's Vengeance continued. Cibola was a long way off.
I took more brandy, it helped a little, looked out the window, saw red and purple flowers playing in a bush. Flowers? I looked again. No flowers, only rocks.