The Fast Red Road
by Stephen Graham Jones
© 2000

 
 

Juanita's rippled in the distance for a solid two miles and then in the next step they were there, at a table, Juanita herself making them pay before eating. Charlie Ward laid the money down slap slap slap. They ate breakfast burritos and made them last, waited for the oilmen to roost. Charlie Ward watched for which ones stepped into the bathroom. After the first one had been gone awhile, Pidgin asked, now? but Charlie Ward waved a finger close to the table, no. Through the plate glass they could see the trucks and cars lined up outside. Over teatwarm goatmilk they kept tabs on who drove what. Finally, Charlie Ward motioned at the one in the laminated straw hat, a single black braid trailing down his spine, silver at the toes and heels of his boots. A turquoise bolo. He even had oldstyle cuffs on, with fringe. Pidgin could tell they had been Wild Bill gloves not long ago. He'd had a pair once; they came with a cap gun.

Together they tried to will the Indian's bowels to move.

After thirty minutes, it worked. He rose suddenly, already untucking his shirt, and stumbled towards the bathroom. In his wake Pidgin and Charlie Ward walked calmly out to his bandit-black Trans-Am. Charlie Ward ran his hand along the hood, over the cowl induction and the firebird beak, and then they were stepping over the doors, standing up through the T-tops, and reclined in the bucket seats. It was theirs. 'Black for the funeral, grandson,' Charlie Ward said, and in the time it took for the dashboard to quit blinding Pidgin it was hotwired and they were gone, easing out in reverse, undetected, smooth.

Once clear of Juanita's, Pidgin said no, please, but Charlie Ward said he just wanted to see what it would do on the highway. It wouldn't take long. They stopped at the liquor store for ice, and Charlie Ward reached into the past and left a yellow handprint on the flank that almost matched the gold pinstriping. It was close enough. He packed the turbo with the ice then, and when it was cooled down and they had a half-gallon of wine, they were the next best thing to airborne, the engine screaming, the wind whipping in and even dragging the headliner loose, so it billowed for a split second then let go, taking the rear window with it in a cascade of glass Pidgin never heard. Charlie Ward had his head out the T-top, being force fed his own war whoops, the tendons in his neck standing out. The speedometer wouldn't do what they were doing, and Pidgin's math was too bad to try and calculate it out. It was wrapped though, the peg broken long ago. When they finally leveled off to a cool one-fifty-something and the gravity acceleration let go of Pidgin, he reached an arm across to Charlie Ward and begged him to stop. But the mile markers merged into an unbroken green line of denial. They were headed west, with the train tracks again, overcorrecting for Texas, missing Clovis altogether.

And there was nothing they couldn't outrun.

Pidgin could feel it for a moment, passing a moving train like it was standing still. In front of them the cars were lining up on the shoulder, to get out of the way. To let them pass. All except the black and white cruiser. Pidgin just made out the trooper's profile for the nanosecond they were alongside him, and his mouth was already held hard to the state radio. And then they were running. And the trooper was running after them, his blue lights in the mirror shifting red, the signs on the road reading Vaughn and then getting sucked up. Pidgin felt Clovis slipping away at a steady hundred and fifty miles per hour. And there was the gearshift just past his left hand, within reach. He pushed the button in and the click went unnoticed. He breathed twice and did it then, pushed the stick up into neutral, the engine winding up to an unhealthy pitch and flattening out there, the aluminum block white hot with anger. Charlie Ward's hand became bodiless and reacted, turned the key back, pulled the machine from the throes. They coasted for a clean and sober two miles, and hung one side of the car in the ditch when there was nothing left.

Charlie Ward looked at Pidgin and Pidgin looked at Charlie Ward. Pidgin said he was sorry and Charlie Ward said back that cars remember people the same as people remember cars. Nothing else. Just the trooper spending hours in his cruiser, preparing, talking himself out of the scattergun maybe. Hopefully. When he finally approached he was all smiles.

'You know that's bad for the turbo,' he said, fatherlike. 'You should let it idle down there, Chief. Go ahead, start it. It's not too late.'

The car came to life between Charlie Ward's thumb and forefinger, loping in place. The trooper slid the stiff leather catch off the back of his gun. It was one of those go-ahead-and-run-boy things. Ten little Indians, fifteen bullets in the clip; the odds were against them. Pidgin had played all their games before; he returned his hand to the leather handle of the parked shifter, to keep it in place, to keep them alive for the interment.

Charlie Ward smiled and said officer, and that was all. No cars passed stocked with witnesses. It was only them and a sound, a lone Peano whistle, from across miles, but close, too close. Pidgin felt like they were in the opening credits of a western. The engine climbed to two grand in response to the whistle, and Charlie Ward's eyes went with it. And the sharp corners of his mouth. The three of them watched the tach bounce up and up like a secondhand. Charlie Ward drew his accelerator leg knee to chest, to prove it wasn't him, but still, the trooper already had his gun drawn, hammer thumbed back and not yet clicked in place.

He was laughing, too, in his way. He asked what a couple of blanket Indians like themselves had to do with a man's car, like this. Charlie Ward said without emotion that he was a man, and then the whistle came again, no train, no anything.

The trooper leveled his gun on Charlie Ward's ear, at an angle where the exit wound would be low down on the other side of the neck, in Pidgin's lap. He told them they were in no position to be pulling schoolboy Indian pranks. It was no joke, though: Pidgin could feel the engine, humming up the metal shifter through the stitched leather handle and into his waiting palm. It was anxious. Over the lakepipes the trooper finally called to Charlie Ward to shut the damn thing off, screw the fucking turbo, but the key would no longer turn, and the trooper wouldn't reach in to see for himself. Not a chance. Instead he just started twitching and talking low, his chin shiny with saliva, his mirrored glasses askew, khaki armpits dark brown and dripping. He was saying to Charlie Ward that he was a trooper, not a damn officer, and was trying to get Charlie Ward to say it with him when it came without warning-the bullet, the slug, the greased shooter-ripping directly above the T-tops at an easy thirty-two hundred feet per second, whining over their heads and away, the sudden clap from the barrel nudging the three of them out of the ditch and onto a stage where their roles were predefined. Another day at the blood theater. The trooper played his part with precision, with stock movements, looking at his gun as if it was a new thing, watching the smoke rise, and then easing into the initial motions of the solemn shoulder shrug that comes right before finishing a thing already started, out of duty. Everything would come clean in the paperwork. From the corner of his seat Pidgin could read this, and all they had to protect them was the Trans-Am. He breathed out and pulled it deep into first, and for an impossible second the car didn't move, just spun in place, but then it was standing up half in the ditch, traction bars keeping it stuck and in line, fist-sized chunks of asphalt assaulting the trooper's cruiser.

Charlie Ward held onto the steering wheel as best he could, whooping and stomping and shifting into second, the tires scratching at forty-five, the bandit-black car leaping forward into history. Pidgin imagined a sharp-edged 2 carved into the ground behind them, or Jay Silverheels grunting something inarticulate into the trooper's CB, to confuse the cavalry, or Marshall Dillon calling in Chuck Connors, to fan the lever of his rifle and take down everything in sight, telegraph poles and all.

They were running, hard.

Soon a helicopter shadow blotted out the sun. A wide chevron of cruisers fell in behind them too, their blackbird running point. Charlie Ward wiped his eyes with one hand, and looked to Pidgin. The old horse thief was unsure. It was there in his eyes. Pidgin pointed his chin in front of them. There was nothing else to do now. So they did it. And there were no roadblocks, because everyone was behind them and nobody ever thought two longhairs could outrun New Mexico's finest.

But then a thing happened in Vaughn: Charlie Ward eased into the brake and the steering wheel at the same time, trying to make the turn south, towards the fugitive myth of Old Mexico, but the car only swerved back north, and then kept on in a westerly direction. Charlie Ward looked around for a second, then lifted his right knee again. Nothing. They didn't slow at all. He visibly relaxed his hands on the wheel, and it stayed true without him. This went deeper than computer alignment and unbent tie rods. Pidgin put on his seatbelt, and Charlie Ward started laughing, his eyebrows stitched together tight with nerves. Pidgin said his mother's name to himself over and over; half the DPS of New Mexico was behind them, and they couldn't give themselves up if they wanted to. And the gas gauge wasn't falling. And the temperature wasn't rising. Pidgin saw himself a week later wearing a Wild Bill get-up like the original owner at Juanita's. God.

There was still the bottle in the backseat. They fell into it. New Mexico slipped by in a rage of sirens.

When they finally hit a last minute roadblock at dusk on some backroad just outside Albuquerque, the Trans-Am took to the ditch, unplanting fence poles Dukestyle, and then screamed back onto the blacktop. It was unstoppable, a sleek Indian juggernaut. When Pidgin was done with the bottle he held it out the window and it was sucked away. Behind them a cruiser fell. They huddled with their arms in the bucket seats, because night was coming and it was cold in the wind. Above them the helicopter stood on its beam of light, everything in the front seat empty and bright, the dash shining off at crazy angles, Charlie Ward holding onto the wheel because they didn't know when the car would let go.

They were hundreds of miles away from Clovis. Even if Birdfinger had grandstood again, the interment had to be long over, the ground even filled in and tamped down. Pidgin asked Charlie Ward where this car was taking them, and Charlie Ward just shrugged and said it was looking like Navajo land to him, at least what used to be Navajo land. 'But then again,' he said, the end too obvious for him to voice. Pidgin got it, didn't smile, kept to himself, watched Charlie Ward's hands on the wheel to see if there was anything that needed to be said. He couldn't tell, but wanted to say it anyway. He turned the radio on loud to keep from it, but still they had to put their ears to the speakers to hear the news about themselves, how they had become Joaquin Murieta reborn and one of his aged stand-ins, carving up the twentieth century with a single car. They were said to be carrying a payload of feather headdresses, peace pipes and old bones, all museum property, all movie memorabilia, all restolen.

Pidgin said he wanted it to be over.

In another hour, he was answered: they heard about it on the radio before they saw it, but when they saw it they were already there. It was a mile-long line of wooden Indians, pilfered from the cigar-smelling conscience of america. The Hopi had lined them up shoulder to shoulder, strung barbwire through the knees and armpits, and each one was cradling an armful of dynamite the oldtime miners had left behind, beaded now with nitroglycerin like tears. It was Kawliga crying, Tecumseh there beside him for consolation purposes, staid and stoic and grave in the face, frowning hard into the camera. The radio DJ was reading in a monotone, whispering between words nine-eleven, nine eleven. A hammer clicked audibly then, and the DJ went on, delivering the message over and over in his coliseum-sized voice: this far and no farther, this far and no farther. There was urgent laughing in the background, and fire crackling like static, cleansing the airwaves.

When Pidgin and Charlie Ward approached the fence at one-hundred-plus, dragging interstate cops like tin cans, a gate swung back on skateboard wheels, making an opening maybe six and a half feet wide. The Trans-Am shot through like threading a needle, the passenger-mirror dinging hello, and then the hole closed itself, had never been. The cruisers stood on their noses coming to a stop, but they didn't cross the line, couldn't. And there were no shots, just one warning flare from behind the wooden Indians, at the helicopter, which kissed the blades and made the sky a huge catherine wheel for a brief moment. The smell of radiator water filled the air. There were already vendors set up, for the hungry troopers. From the Hopi side of the line, people were chanting red rover red rover. A stray corn chip tossed in fatigue at the wooden Indians could get things started once and for all.

Pidgin rubbed warmth into his face and looked straight ahead. Beside him Charlie Ward said he was sorry. Pidgin shrugged it off. They were on Hopi land, Hopi backroads, and now they were in front of a Hopi prefab that still had a tractor truck hitched to it, stripped, rusting into the ground, the house tilting at a bad angle. The road made an awkward U around the place, banked bermstyle on the far side, but the car didn't take it. It coasted to the other side instead, near a horse trough, and finally rested, the turbo sighing.

The man who came out to greet them was barechested and wearing Jim Morrison pants too, with a brass zipper down the buttcrack. He didn't take his sunglasses off. He just approached the car and ran his hand along the hood, winced at the fence post impressions, inspected the tires and then spit on the sidepipes, making them hiss, stink filling the air; he never looked at Pidgin or at Charlie Ward. Soon enough he was laughing and whooping and doing some cheap stomp dance in the dirt beside his car, knees going high. A group of children joined him reluctantly and together they covered the Trans-Am in a camo tarp. Pidgin and Charlie Ward scrambled out at the last instant, and the children screamed and either scattered or became dogs.

'Hello there,' the man said, then started to say something else but his mouth filled with emotion, and he had to just wave an upturned palm in the direction of the Trans-Am, wait it out. He said it when he could: 'Thank you for bringing her back.'

'She kind of brought us,' Pidgin said, and before he had it all the way out the man was laughing, introducing himself as Grospieler, ushering them inside, handing them each an old chicken bucket of frybread with chili on bottom. As they sat their unevenly-legged chairs and ate, buckets slanted to the side, he told them the sad story of how the car had been stolen from him three days ago, by one of their young men. He said he didn't report it to missing persons because he didn't want the young man to go to jail. But all the same, his baby had been gone, he'd had a hard time even sleeping, and had lost touch with his radio soaps altogether.

Charlie Ward stopped eating midchew, looked hard at this Grospieler, at the eagle bone whistle tied around his neck, made from a juvenile and an adult, so one could slide in the other. 'Tell it like it is,' Charlie Ward said finally. 'Tell us how much you sold it for.'