The moon’s beaming down through swaying willow leaves above my wide-brimmed hat. This willow tree weeps beside a country road that stretches out to my left and right. Wind whips the tails of my long duster toward either direction while I kick up dirt with my cowboy boot to see which way the breeze will lead. Usually, I would be long gone from a fork in the road, going left or right--whichever way I wanted to; but right now, there’s only one way to go--backwards. Back towards a town where my beloved guitar’s gone missing. That guitar’s got a name too--Picaro, little rascal--and it’s been my closest companion on our long journey to nowhere. Fact is, Picaro’s paid for so many meals and places to sleep that you could say it’s the one who’s been carrying us along from town to town. In all the time we’ve spent on the road together I’ve never raised a hand to anyone, but I’ve used Picaro many a time to defuse situations that might’ve turned sour. I don’t rightly know where that little rascal’s scampered off to, but I’m gonna have to turn tail to try and find out.
That’s something I’ve never done before, but I’ve gotta get Picaro back to its rightful place--in my arms. Back when the sun was high up in the sky above me, instead of the moon, Picaro the guitar was right by my side. We were rolling along this same road here besides me, in the backseat of Big Bill’s red Bronco. We were on our way to the next town, Arnette--the same place I’m gonna start stomping towards right now. While I march towards a town that should be behind me, I think back on riding in that red Bronco with Bill and Picaro, cruising over the gravel that’s crunching under my boots right now. Instead of walking, I was reclining in the backseat with Picaro set on my lap, looking over a newspaper clipping cut by Bill’s wife. Bill was taking up half of the front bench seat, and when he looked back at me in the rear-view mirror, we made eye contact. Bill raised a thick arm up on the seat and spoke over his shoulder, “What do you think of that Luke?” I looked down at the clipping in my hand--
Travelling Musician Saves Local Boy from Coyote
This morning, two abnormal events occurred in our small town: a coyote chased young Bill Hapscomb Jr. into the hills surrounding his family home, and Bill Sr. asked a strange travelling musician, Luke, for his assistance. Luke utilized his charisma and musical ability to calm the Hapscomb’s outraged friends and family before they took unnecessarily violent action. Then, the coyote was soothed with sweet sounds from Luke’s guitar and little Bill was saved.
I looked up from under the bill of my cowboy hat and smiled. “Never read about myself in a newspaper before.”
“Yeah, maybe you just wasn’t ’round to read about yourself after skipping town” said Bill, then we shared a chuckle before he turned his eyes back toward the road.
I reached a hand over the front bench seat to pat Bill on one of his red-flannel covered shoulders before saying, “Make sure you thank Bernadette for cutting this clipping.”
“Sure thing, pardner,” Bill said, and I sat back to start picking a little tune on Picaro.
After a piece, I could tell that Bill was thinking on something.
Sure enough, he spoke up after a second or two. “Hey Luke…”
“Why don’t you have a car?”
I leaned forward. “What?”
“Why don’t you travel by car?”
“I’m travelling by car right now.”
“I know that. What I meant was, why don’t you drive around all the time?”
I paused for a moment, then I spoke. “Because cars are the enemy, Bill.”
“Say again?” he said, over his shoulder.
I removed my hat before starting to recite, “Cars take hold on the trip’s direction, even though a drifter’s journey has no destination. Automobiles are just leashes ’round the neck of every person locked into the military-industrial complex. My two feet are my best friends, and they’re the only type a transportation I need.”
“What was that part about the militar--”
I interrupted and pointed through the windshield. “Hey, is that next town up there?”
Over trees ahead, between two rising slopes, I could see the rooves of a couple brick buildings rising up like the hills beside them.
A small blue sign stood up right next to the road, “Arnette--Population 3600.”
Bill said, “Yup, that’s Arnette--it’s got around half the number of people in Arlington, so it’s probably about twice as boring.” We both laughed, but then Bill became more serious. “Say Luke, what exactly were you doing before ya hit the road?”
“Classic upper-middle class life, Bill--serious girlfriend, some stupid job in middle-management…but I don’t like to talk about those days.”
“Well, if you’re ever in these par--”
“Pull over here, Bill” I said, pointing to a small parking lot on the edge of Main Street.
Bill parked the Bronco, then he spoke quietly. “Alright Luke, well it was real nice to meet ya. Thanks again for helping with my boy.”
I leaned over the front seat for a handshake. “No problem Bill, hope our paths cross again.”
He said “me too” while we shook hands, and then I stepped out of the car with my guitar case.
Bill’s red Bronco drove off slowly between the brick buildings resting on both sides of Main Street, and I started strolling in the same direction looking for a bar. I found one, Lazy Susan’s, and used Picaro’s case to push through the swinging double doors. Then I stopped for a tick to take in the interior--nice and open, clean floors, polished bar, a little stage set in the corner--this was the perfect place for yuppies to relax after a long day of churning out spreadsheets and gossiping by the watercooler. There were a couple dozen of those types in here tonight, dressed in button-down shirts and khakis or nice little professional outfits. I slipped past them on my way towards the bar. A stocky woman was posted behind the counter, and she traipsed towards me while wiping off a glass.
“What’ll it be, sailor?”
“Give me one tankard of your finest lager, m’lady.”
The barkeep chuckled before popping a brown bottle and passing it over the bar.
I knocked back a few swigs before striking up a conversation with the lady bartender, who had settled into a recliner set sideways behind the bar. “Nice place ya got here.”
She stopped rocking and stood up. “Thanks, I try to keep it clean.”
“You’re Susan, right?”
“That’s me. Can I help ya with something?”
I stood and lifted my guitar case up onto the bar, “Actually, maybe I could help you--” I flicked the case open and pulled out Picaro, “--by providing a little entertainment.”
Susan sighed before responding. “Let’s see whatch’ya got.”
I started picking a popular song and singing along. Susan seemed interested, and I asked for my usual rate of $100--enough for a motel room and a few meals. Up on stage, I looked out over the crowd, and spotted a man who reminded me of my old self--late 20s, clean cut, looking miserable. I assumed the woman sitting next to him was his girlfriend, and the man and woman across from them must have been another couple. The three other people at his table were obviously pretending to have a good time--heavy drinking, fake smiles, occasionally yelling or laughing with artificial gusto; but the man couldn’t hide his misery, just like I wasn’t able to so long ago. My old girlfriend, Lindsey, never stopped nagging on me about my guitar playing. She hated how I always want to cut and run when things went wrong—I didn’t get a promotion, let’s go to Boca. My old dog died, let’s go to Colorado. One day the truth came out--I hated my job, and I especially hated going out to bars like this one to sit around and pretend like I was enjoying myself. One time I made us ditch a couple of Lindsey’s friends, and then me and her got into a real serious fight out in the car. Some nasty words were exchanged between us, so I just grabbed my guitar case out the backseat and hit the road. Now I’m here, playing my guitar for a couple dozen carbon copies of me and Lindsey, hanging around in some yuppie bar and pretending to enjoy themselves.
Once my set was done, I put some distance between myself and the posers by walking towards the bathroom. I stepped past the bar for moment, out of my wits, and I shouted something to Susan, “Watch my guitar for a minute, will ya?” I didn’t even notice if Susan responded, I was starting to see spots. I walked into the bathroom and set Picaro’s sticker-covered case down on the wall, then I stepped up to the sink to wash my hands. Next thing I knew, I was washing my whole forearm. Then I was splashing cold water on my face, trying to forget where I was. I stared deeply into my reflection in the mirror, and I could see the outline of my old clean-cut mask beneath my unshaven face and wild long hair. I stomped out of the bathroom, wiping my eyes hard with one arm. Then I started running straight out of the bar into the street. I turned left onto main at a sprinter’s pace and flagged down an old pick-up truck. The wind and dirt were whipping through my hair, but I didn’t care--I just wanted to get away. That rust bucket carried me a half mile out of town, then I slapped on the rear window and we stopped right next to a willow tree. I hopped out of the truck bed and collapsed onto my knees. The old driver called out the window, “You alright, son?” I waved him on from my prone position, and his truck rolled away. I felt light-hearted, nauseous, like my skin was crawling. Then I remembered my anchor-- Picaro. I’d left my guitar behind, and now it needs me…
When I walked back into town, I must have looked like a wild man. Hair flying all over the place, dirt on my clothes. I stumbled straight back into Lazy Susan’s and pushed past all the yuppies on my way to the bar. Susan was the only person I could turn to, but she hadn’t seen anyone else walking through with my guitar case. Susan suggested that I hop over to The Three Balls, a stopping point for thieves trying to sell their stolen goods fast. I followed her instructions to the pawn shop and walked into a small space stuffed with metal shelves that held piles of grimy electronics and other grubby junk. I passed through the shelves towards a glass counter, where an old bald guy in a Hawaiian shirt stood half-asleep. I yelled at him, “Hey, anyone walk in with a sticker-covered guitar case trying to sell my sunburst-black acoustic?!”
He responded with a bored tone, “Just missed him. “
“Where the hell did he go?!”
“Young feller walked in with that guitar, asking ten times too much. I gave him the boot, then he slipped past me out that back door.” The old man pointed behind himself towards a small back hallway that led out towards a metal door. I gave the geezer an order, “Call the police!” before sliding over that glass counter, then I pushed past the old man and got to stepping. The metal door thunked against an exterior brick wall after I slammed through it, and I stepped out into a small back lot that was devoid of any person or thing besides broken up concrete and a few patches of dead grass. Then, I heard the soft flick of a lighter and I followed that sound to a fenced-in enclosure. Four tall wooden walls surrounded something, and I snuck around the outside until I reached a wood-plank door that stood slightly askew. I peered in through the opening, and my eyes first caught sight of a squat dumpster sitting within its enclosure; then I saw Picaro’s case leaning up against the wooden fence. The source of the lighter flick’s sound was a lean, mean-looking teenager lighting up besides my beloved guitar. He turned away from me--muttering to himself between puffs of smoke. I slipped in through the door real quiet like, and slowly reached my arm out towards the handle of Picaro’s case. Then I heard something click, a switchblade.
The teenage tough turned towards me with his blade raised and said, “What do you think you’re doing old man?”
I shot back, “Who are you calling old? There ain’t ten years between us.”
“Why don’t you let go of my guitar, old man, before I slice off one of them fingers.”
“You mean my guitar?” I said, slowly lifting my fingers off the case’s handle.
“Oh, so you’re the loser who left his guitar in a bathroom?”
“I was… in the stall, you’re the idiot who steals guitars out of bathrooms!”
“Don’t you call me an idiot! Now you’re really going to lose a finger!” The thief slashed his knife through the air.
“Now, hold on a minute young feller. How about I hand you all the money in my pocket while you hand over that there guitar?”
The thief thought for a moment, then his expression became menacing. “Why don’t you just get lost, before you lose an entire hand--or your life.”
“I can’t just run away from this one, because I need my guitar.”
“What, this old hunk a junk? Four or five hundred from sellin’ it will let me travel in comfort for a while. No more sneaking into barns and getting chased off by some old farmer and his dog.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of robbing and running, kid? Can’t you just go home?”
The teen became forlorn before responding, “Parents kicked me out of my own damned bedroom. Said my soul was lost for good, so now I gotta steal--then I gotta run.”
“You ain’t the only one on the run around here. I’ve been on the road for three years, and that there guitar’s been carryin’ me on all the while.”
The thief assumed an angry expression, brandishing his knife while he spoke. “Well at least you can go back to regular life. Living amongst regular folks just ain’t an option for me anymore.”
“That ain’t right, kid. Head on over to some other town, settle down, find a job--try to make something of yourself. Sometimes staying on the road for too long can destroy a person, it’s just plain wrong to spend your entire life in motion.”
The kid chuckled a little. “Sounds like what the pot said to the kettle. Tough part is, I’mma have to keep hold of this here guitar if I’m gonna keep moving on towards a normal life.”
“Now hold on a second--” I raised my arms and the thief responded by slicing at me with his switchblade,
“--don’t forget about my deal!”
“You hand over my guitar, and I hand over all the money in my pocket. Cash will get you on the road a lot quicker, rather than hanging on to stolen property--don’t you think?”
The thief’s knife dropped for a moment while he contemplated my offer, then he re-raised the switchblade. “Alright then, on the count of three.”
“You’re gonna have to put that knife away to take my money.”
The kid folded the knife against his leg, put it in his pocket, and then picked up my guitar case. He took a step towards me and held up the case, while I put a hand into my pocket and said, “On the count of three.”
Together, we counted it off. “One, two, three…”
We reached towards each other, and once the handle of Picaro’s case slipped into my open palm I pulled an empty pocket from my pants. The kid bared his teeth with outrage, then he reached into his pocket to flip out the switchblade. He snapped it open and prepared to lunge towards my chest. Suddenly, an authoritative voice called out from beyond the dumpster’s wooden enclosure, “Someone back there?”
I smiled and said, “Over here officer!”
The young thief took a few steps backward and snarled at me, “You son of a…”
The cop stepped into our arena and shouted, “Drop the weapon son!”
The young crook was shocked, and he dropped his knife before raising both hands into the air.
I smiled with pride, picked up Picaro’s case, and started strolling towards Main Street. The sun was starting to rise between the hills on both sides of this little town. Upon reaching Main Street, I looked over to my left--towards the open road. Then I looked to my right, towards Bill’s hometown--Arlington, lying someone East under the rising sun. After pausing for a moment to compose myself, I turned right and started stepping towards the sunrise…
Oakley S Thompson is an English major who likes to read old paperbacks until the bindings fall apart. He usually types at top speed until his fingers start to bleed, or at least until the coffee runs out.