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Direction has the sound of breaking bones. They splinter beneath memory. Memory is the thing you cast away a long time ago before the road and the endless miles spun beneath your dreams. Direction is not a point on a compass, any more than a breaking wave is the axle on a car.
I hitched a ride as sharp hailstones cut my skin. It was the day that knowledge was born and I crawled beneath the discarded placenta of unnatural birth. The tattoo on my arm that read “Home is never North” was bleeding as I climbed inside the truck that bombed down the deserted highway.
The driver almost broke my fingers with his grip.
‘I’m Don,’ he said.
Don used to pour meths in his tea and sit there talking of the times he made all the money.
His words sounded like a song I used to know, it was a melody whose words were lost to me. Don had huge hands, as big as two doors. They were made of wood and his knuckles were hinges. I liked that because the house we stayed in that month had no doors. He’d blown them off when he let off the bombs. Fire lingered in the slow dawn that bled pink across the scarred landscape.
‘Mike,’ he said, ‘they’re coming for us, suck on a pill while I shoot them.’
They came on Sunday. Their images were etched in the hills. They’d been trying for us for years. They travelled up hills and across farms to where we sat drinking. We needed them. We were wanted men, you see.
As Don picked up his rifle it looked like a toothpick in his fingers. And I watched as the cops fell to the ground. The gun shots sounded like a gate crashing shut in my head over and over again, and a millions birds took flight in my brain, yellow and blue, chattering like parrots in the jungle.
It was blazing hot that year, the earth caught fire, and I saw the naked forms of soldiers rise from the mounds of split and severed soil, ochre in their martial glory. And I was ochre and lost and ruined and beside me was a warrior, a son of sorts.
Where are my soldiers now? Do they sing broken songs at dark when the fields are screaming and no one can hear at all?
That is what the road sounds like after a time. An immense noise then silence. It’s a silence that deafens you. It is filled with the sound of bones crushing beneath wheels.
Don at the helm, hope in the injuries he sustained, the scars like stanzas crawling across his wasted skin in a glory of epic verse. This was the time we lived in the in between, we sold promises like a last breath to the desperate sick ruined people we encountered on our way, knowing we were running out of highway.
That Sunday Don fired at the police but there were more coming. They followed one another like a line of ants up the hill to our fortress.
‘I’m bringing them down,’ Don yelled over the noise and the smoke, ‘they are mine Mike, for they do not come here to venture with laws that have no place in the hills.’
His eyes shone out of his face like torches and his head was made of rock as he shot policeman after policeman.
I picked up a gun and fired blindly into the day.
I chewed on some of the blue pills, my mouth awash with a rancid taste of rust and melted butter. And even the visions, glorious images from a heaven on the tip of my finger, even they did not abate the knowledge that they were coming for us, that we couldn’t hole up there anymore.
A newspaper flapped in the breeze and I saw Don’s face staring up at me from its yellowed pages. It was his mirror, a signal proof he’d existed and been someone, the person sought by the police. I didn’t count the bodies they claimed were his personal achievement in a fallen world. I didn’t read their analysis of his crimes. What are crimes in this poisoned maze? What black promise first broke you?
Don had a polite way about him even when he was violent, and I’d become hooked to the action way back when I first drank whisky with him in a bar in the desert. It was a shelter where the barmaid had a familiar face. All the women serving drinks in sand. They fall through the hour glass. Between her words she said things to me, the coded things we know in our sleep. She had a key on her hip and I wanted to find the door it opened. I knew the door led South.
Don and I lived on the edge of time and for a year I found direction with him. He took me from the road of wandering, thumbing rides with strangers who all smelled of sexual need and shame. Cold sweat ran down their backs as they went to wash the memory of me away. I’d already been washed down the drain with the jagged razors I recall one bright summer morning. There’s always crying in the wind, a woman’s voice from long ago, no face, I managed to blur the edges of that. I wanted to paint a set of eyes and lips on that hole in the heartland. And so I journeyed. Travelling through small anonymous towns in the dark I searched for the day.
When Don killed the cop it all became defined again. I could feel my heartbeat for the first time in years. The edges of buildings looked like razors. Straight razors set there by a hand whose inviolable rules denied all rebellion.
We headed to his pickup and down the tracks that crumbled beneath our wheels. Don spat a yard of blood into the lawless air. He was injured and didn’t care because we were immortal in those days before time found us.
We slept through hot days in a nowhere motel. We were wanted and that meant something.
We entertained women from local towns and found their faces grew full of spite at their knowledge of who we were and might become.
‘I have to find her,’ I told him.
‘Your wife ain’t coming back,’ he said.
I’d entertained him with a lie, and the truth was I’d never been married, it was something I’d said to make him feel I’d lived once. My sense of deceit sickened me. I never wanted him to know. Such commissioning of respect once revealed as an adolescent ruse is the cause of more loss than men can articulate.
One day in a bar I sat sipping beer while Don went to steal a car. And I knew it had to end, that they would find him and I would be cut loose. The barmaid had small soft tortured eyes which turned the other way as I ordered another round, a solitary drinker remembering his life before the action came around.
As she fixed her hair in the mirror she saw me watching her.
‘Turn you on?’ she said, coming over to the bar and resting her sharp elbows on it.
I took her wrists and stroked the scars.
‘Your old man will beat you to death with an electric plug and you ask me that? I am your son, I always loved you.’
Then I heard the gun shot. My whisky rippled in the sleeping glass.
Don was outside revving the engine and we drove through cities where the ink was drying on the lives inside the homes we passed. And one afternoon they caught him. I watched from a dripping doorway as they hauled him off in chains. It took six men to take Don. He removed the door from their police car and smashed one of the cops in the face with it.
Who knows how many he’d killed? Do statistics cure us of the lies?
The police were stealing cargo all along, dealers in prestige, they’d brokered deals with every moneyed person along the scar that was the road.
In jail Don tortured a prison guard. He spent a night taking this guy apart. He ran a soldering iron across the man’s face. He set fire to his head with his Zippo lighter.
But if I told you there was gentleness in Don would you believe me? If I told you he once gave all his money to a starving woman would you think I was lying?
If they burnt you with electrodes who would you be? If they took away your face how would you sound?
I drink beer now that is stale and flat. The road is open, but there is only the noise of the wind and the voices that fill the air.
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