Zac stood on the roads shoulder, watching and listening to the rhythm of traffic ant around the bend. He had his droopy drawers up, back straight, hair aside his strained smiling face, and thumb out fishing for a ride, muttering curses through his smile. His breath and sweat smoggy with solo drinks from the night before. Zac had lived for all twenty-two years of his life in the same tiny rocky mountain town. Hed dawdled around after high school getting drunk with the superficialities of partying and spent most of his time barhopping, tagging, busting out taillights, and robbing third and fourth homes.
Before he blinked, four years had vanished. Now, he was hurried, like hed slipped at the starting line, and dizzy from holding his breath all day, trying to pinpoint what fed the holes in him. Hed sunk into the shackles of halfhearted passion that were beginning to nurture starvation, self-hostility and animosity. Everything was a blur. He was cramped and cluttered, and it seemed his limbs attached to strings.
Today was supposed to be his day off, but he was called into work because the seasonal cook staff couldnt handle the growing crowd. Utterly useless, he thought. Its not even close to the dinner rush yet. The cooks werent very experienced, and he figured the restaurant wasnt even busy. For most of his life, Zac had been standing on shoulders with grey gravel pebbled about hitchhiking, thanks to a couple D.U.Is, but he didnt mind. He liked the capricious excitement. Zacs lanky legs paced, chameleon teal eyes patrolled for cars, and shoulders sagged from holding the sky. Zac sank inside himself.
He was thinking about leaving Grand Lake, which he thought was the music note of his blues, slowly lullabying him. If he ever wanted to get out, hed figured itd have to be sooner than later. Accordingly, Zac accepted his parents offer to send him to college to become an Aircraft Plumbing Installation Engineer. At first, he fought the offer. He wanted to avoid the nine to five shackle shuffle and go to art school for painting, but Zac couldnt pay for college. All the money he made went to the court. His only option was his parents, and if he wanted their help, it was going to be how they saw fit. They always bludgeoned on that painting wasnt a stable career and hed be better off pursuing something fiscally stable, like plumbing. Zac died a little more each time he peed or took a shit.
After nearly an hour of fishing, Zac saw a storm grey pickup that looked promising. It jerked out of traffic and cried to a stop, Zac hopped in, and the truck pulled away like a makeshift sailboat. Static clouded from the radio as the truck shook down the road. Empty, crumpled soft-packs of U.S.A Golds, almost empty Nyquil bottles, and a knife holstered in shiny-smooth leather sat atop the dusty dash. The mans silver hair framed black stubble that rooted out of his hard, wheat bread face. His fingertips were tinted with nicotine and black shirt was a relic thatd been tied to the hitch of the confederacy. The tart had frizzy blonde hair, bruised, concaved cheekbones, and was wearing a crme shirt that was stained like an inner city bus stop and hung from her bones like weights. She was kneeling on the seat rocking and breathing over into Zac, sucking up the air. Both of them had milky crystal lips, rotted wood dock teeth, and springy eyes. Both were high, clattering like the truck.
The man asked where Zac was headed and he said Tabernash. The man nodded, casually revealing that hed just been let out of jail, and explained that he and the girl were going to Fox Run Inn, which was slightly past Tabernash, and that theyd drop him off there. Zac nodded, agreeably and was familiar with the place. Hed cooked there for a summer and knew there was a shortcut trail he could take down into town. It didnt really bother Zac that the man was fresh out of prison. What troubled him was their condition given the man was just released from prison.
Ylike bellybuttons? Zac half shook and half nodded his head.
I can smoke with my mine, she said. Can you? The locks nail gunned down. Zac nodded no, feeling his stomach starting to chill and chest starting to cave. While she giggled, peeking under her shirt with her finger and poking at her bellybutton, the man went on about how his was an innie, that innies were far superior and more complex than outies, and that universally, everybodys bellybutton was some shade of pink.
Is yours pink? Zac wobbled yes.
What bout playin with it or diggin in it? You ever find lint in it? What bout smellin one? You ever smell a one? Zac swayed no, his eyes racing for a trap door.
You got a girlfriend? she asked. Zac jerked no.
Well next time youre with a girl, the man said, put some cherries in her bellybutton and suckem out. Shell like that.
Ill make sure to do that.
Thats what were gon go do, the man said. Aint that right babe. She bouncily nodded, eyes beaming at Zac.
Hes kinda cute. Can he join us? Zac tried pretending he wasnt there.
Cant we find one of your chick friends instead?
No! I like him. Zac was trying to eject from his skin, mute screaming.
Im not into doin it with two dudes.
You wont be doin anything unless he comes with, she gaveled.
Alright, the man said, sharply looking at Zac. You want to join us?
No. No thanks. I gotta be gettin to work. Zac wasnt even considering it, but he knew the situation was delicate and every word and gesture mattered. He didnt know whatd set them off. He was trying to be polite, avoid sudden movements, and be unreadable.
My s hairy. Is yours? Zac, acute as ever, bobbed yes. How hairy?
Mines as smooth as a skinned scalp, she said. Wanna feel? Zac joggled no, his chest caving in and stomach spawling like a brain freeze. I can smoke with mine. Ill teach you. Lift up your shirt. Zac shook her off. Cmon, pull up your shirt. He shook her off again. "Show me your bellybutton! She erupted out of her rocking, slapping his arm and squawking for him to show her his bellybutton. In seconds, she was back to breathing over him. Zacs heart kicked. He knew he shouldve known better. He shouldve sized up the ride before getting in. Trying not to crackle, he asked if theyd let him out just up ahead, saying that it wasnt far and he could walk the rest of the way. Grinning toward Zac, the man winked and grumbled on that he didnt mind taking him the rest of the way.
Yeah, she whispered into Zacs ear twirling his hair, well take ya.
As the clunkity, storm-grey truck ricketed past the turnoff to Tabernash, Zacs clammy skin rose and he felt flimsy. He tried to breathe, but his lungs were frozen. Zac knew where this was going. Hed had the same feeling last year right before he was jumped inside of a truck by two drunken hillbillies, who took his stuff and left him on the side of the road with four broken ribs and a shattered black face. They were about to jump him. He could feel it.
The man blinked off into the inns full, but desolate parking lot and killed the encapsulating truck. As the keys chimed along to the stifling radio static, Zac tightened. He was clutching his bag tighter and his eyes were bigger. His jaw was clenched, teeth were grating, and breath was paused. How was he going to escape the drugged up duo? Granted, Zac was bigger than both of them, but they were speedy-numb and wouldnt be easy to outrun or take down. All he could do was ready to run or fight.
Thump! The locks shot up.
Take it easy. The man smiled crookedly.
Zac couldnt believe it, but took the opening while he had it, before the man changed his mind. He thanked them for the ride and stammered off on autopilot down the densely wooded trail leading down to Tabernash, putting as much distance as he could between them and him. He didnt want them following him.
It was dusking. There was just as much light as there was dark and everything melted into the same shade of midnight prune, leaving only the dark beneath contrasting the blinding-bright, white sky.
Ambling down the narrow path, Zac was relieved that hed misread the picker-uppers and that he was still in tact. His shoulders sank and breath steadied, but his heart still knocked and his stomach and lungs were still thawing. His sympathetic nervous system wasnt sure if it was okay to relax. Sitting on a sagging, uprooted tree, Zac poured his heavy head into his hands. Streaming his fingers through his hair and closing his eyes, trying to pull himself together before entering town. Feeling the crisp mountain air on his face, he took some deep breaths, and as he sat, things slowed. He could hear the singing silencethe breeze strumming the branches, the birds lyrics, the choir aspen leaves, and the white water river bass consistently riffing in the distance.
Zac sank inside himself, sighing, fatigued by his anxious, stagnant, and stringed existence and numb curiosity. He was tired of green veiled waters and the winds of consequentialism plotting his course rather than the ridges of his fingertips and was weary of being a bank for indifferent passion. Most of all, he was tired of walking on nails and living in a conscious coma from being clubbed by cant-dos and plumbing pipes from the future.
Zacs thoughts were interrupted by twigs crunching. Rising up, he slowly scanned for any movement, but the rustling stopped. The music paused, except the steady bass. Not a thing was moving. He continued to probe the forest, but the noise was gone, and he brushed it off, thinking it was a squirrel. As he continued toward town, he heard more crunching. This time, much louder. I knew theyd follow me, he thought. Again, Zac tensed. He swung around to see what the noise was.
The boreal branches quaked as the woolly, thirteen hundred pound moose fogged out of the dark forest. Its deep space eyes scoped Zac, who turned to stone. The bulls ash tipped bowed legswhich were taller than Zacslowly lumbered toward him. Its nose puffing, the dusty-black beast stopped a couple feet from him, waiting for Zac to make his move. But he was just as still. Staring up at it, trying to see past its chest and force field of rotting rain. Feeling its burnt-coffee, marsh-moist breath showering down on his face and its bell patting the top of his head. It loomed, scraping the sky and blocking out the white dusk. As it blended into the dark beneath, Zac was encompassed by a prune silhouette. He couldnt make out any of its features other than two beads of white light reflecting off of its eyes and its winged antlers that veined for miles, almost popping the clouds.
Slowly, Zac extended his hand palm up, showing he didnt mean harm and offering the moose to inspect him. Obligingly, it leaned forward and lowered its headthat weighed more than Zacsniffing and nibbling on his fingers. Its feathery lips tickled his skin, making his hair stand. He was afraid to breathe. Afraid to wreck the silence. Gently, he reached up, stroking the giants wool facethat was bigger than his upper bodyand exploring its wise-deep eyes. It didnt flinch, trusting Zac or, knowing it could stomp him at will. His eyes were calm and his mind was still, but loud. He was fully immersed. All of his discontent dissolved into the dusky daylight.
In that moment, Zac felt important, yet totally insignificant. He was the eyelash of a subatomic particle, yet bigger than universe, feeling like a smile that knows a secret. He explored a little longer, and the king strutted back off into the pruned woods as if its job was done. Zac was still a blinkless puddle of pudding. He waited for a couple minutes to see if it would come back, knowing it wouldnt. Then, he started to make his way to work, which now seemed painfully trifling.
The face-to-face slapped Zac awake, like injecting ammonium carbonate, and reminded him of how he felt when he painted, immersed and connected. A nexus that money couldnt buy, school couldnt teach, and science couldnt clone. He wanted to swim in the infiniteness of life. His mind aligned, realizing what was feeding his holes and where they were. Draining out of plumbing punctures in his ventricles and slits in his hearts connective tissue was colored water. His veins and arteries were powder and he was leaking like a flabbering balloon with its neck cut off. No wonder he felt dizzy all day. It was a simple fix. Hed plug his holey heart with the butts of broken paintbrushes, mend the rips with acrylic staples, and replace his eyes with wells. Melting into the fabric of existence, and staying true to the callingthe Captainhed uncork, spilling out across white canvasses.
2013 Conner North