Fall 2015, Volume 19

Fiction by Matt Basiliere

Not Doing Anything Wrong

The cruiser crunches onto the gravel at the side of the on-ramp, stopping in a rising cloud of dust. Out of the cruiser’s darkness, a cop emerges one slow, big footfall at a time. In a squelch of radio static, he walks through waning evening light toward the hitchhiker, a skinny young white man—one silver hoop earring glinting beneath brown whorls of hair. Resting against the hitchhiker’s thin thigh, a brown, rigid-frame backpack.

The cop shoulders his flashlight, its beam to the hitchhiker’s eyes. He looks at the backpack. No patches. No decals or flags. “What we got in there, son? Weed? Speed?”  

The hitchhiker fidgets, his eyes on the silent blues and reds that leave the cruiser’s top lights, spin within the settling dust cloud, and vanish before reaching the pink and purple evening that vaults over the miracle around him -- the intersecting highways and windowless commercial buildings of Barstow, California like a smudge on the desert  that shoots to the distant horizon. “Clothes—. My stuff. Some—.”

Shaking his head, the cop gestures at the backpack. Having been through this often enough to know the routine, the hitchhiker squats, loosens the top flap and lifts a handful of t-shirts from the backpack. He places them on the crumbling pavement. The cop nods, and the hitchhiker lifts out another handful of clothes, tube socks falling from his grip. Placing the clothes on the gravel at his feet, the hitchhiker reaches both hands into the backpack and withdraws a purple, cloth-covered notebook—a wad of envelops stuffed beneath its front cover. As a dried flower petal drifts from the notebook’s pages down to the pavement, which still radiates heat from the newly sunken sun, the hitchhiker brings out a wooden recorder and a small plastic vial.

Stepping forward, the cop takes the vial and unscrews the lid, revealing the plastic wand beneath. He smiles, and his eyes shift to follow the shimmering trail of soap bubbles that leave the wand’s end and drift upwards and north along the line of the highway below. They disappear into the warm, exhaust-heavy air as a rainbow of viscous fluid drools off the wand’s base and engulfs an ant struggling in a craggy landscape of pavement that neither man sees at his feet.

The cop gives the vial back to the hitchhiker. “Got some ID?” the cop asks, lowering the flashlight. The hitchhiker unzips a pocket on the side of the pack and opens a small, cloth purse. He pulls out a small wad of crisp traveler’s checks held with a rubber band. Reaching into the purse again, he brings out a parcel of lined white papers folded into neat squares. From within the papers he withdraws a license, extends it out toward the cop.

“Seventeen? You’re an awfully long way from Maine for seventeen. Your folks know you’re hitching out of Barstow, C. A. on a Saturday night?”  

“Yes, sir. They—.”

“So if I go back to the car, have the station give them a call back there in, uh, Mechanicsburg, they’re going to know—?”

“They know I’m here. I’m not a runaway. Not doing anything wrong.”

When the cop asks where he is going, the hitchhiker looks to the pavement and points at the highway, embarrassed to tell him the truth — someplace else, the past, the way things used to be. A feeling in the early morning before the sun has risen and an outcome is determined. Before all of this stuff, he imagines saying. Before I am who I am. A place where there are no ideas, just bodies. A place where—. Everywhere and nowhere, where—. Reagan isn’t the president. Where—.

“Nineteen seventy-nine,” the hitchhiker mumbles, a flush in his cheeks at the knowledge that for once he is speaking the truth, using his voice to bring the impossible out into the world. Even if only for this one, uniformed man.

Handing the license back, the cop nods his head. “You can’t stand on the ramp when you’re hitching,” he says, deadpan, not taking the bait.

“Where should I stand?” the hitchhiker asks, the skin at his knuckles going bunchy and red as he squeezes the purse into his jeans. “I just want to get a ride, and—” As the cop turns to leave, the hitchhiker’s voice rises to a plea, his eyes moving between the back of the cop and the stream of metal and wheels churning along the highway below. “And—to stay safe,” he says. “Can you tell me where—. Can you help me?”

The cop turns to face the hitchhiker, exhales, a cynical laugh or fatigue. “Can’t stand here or on the highway,” the cop says. “That’s the law.” He nods up the ramp toward the street. “Stand up on the road. Make a sign or something so people know you want the highway. Like they used to do. ‘15 North’. Something like that.” He tilts his head, raises his eyebrows. “Put a smiley face on it. That might get you where you want to go.” The cop looks down toward the highway. “I don’t know about keeping you safe. That ain’t my job.” He walks to his car and drops down into it, the shocks letting out a squeak. “And it sure as hell wasn’t my job in ‘79,” he says, looking over his shoulder.

The hitchhiker reassembles the backpack as the cop guns the engine, pulls down the decline of the on-ramp and speeds into the settling darkness and shocking distance of the boundless desert night. The highway an artery through it.

Walking to the top of the ramp, the hitchhiker considers his options. He looks to his left at the accumulating lights of Barstow and the bar he was in that afternoon – no sign, just an expanse of parking lot surrounding a squat brick building; by the entrance, two Harley’s and a blue ’68 Maverick with rusted out wheel wells, a length of rope coiled on the driver’s side mirror. The hitchhiker turns to his right and sees the overpass, hears those voices still beneath it—scrappy grumbles rising to shouts. Beyond the overpass he sees an expanse of land rising silent and huge into the distance, pushed up by unyielding forces beneath the earth’s surface, tectonic plates in a geologically paced collision lifting uncounted tons of rock and earth toward heaven from a molten place below. And above it all the hitchhiker sees the desert’s glittering stark canvas, a weightless half sphere arching high over coyotes, jackrabbits, lizards and insects starving, hiding and hunting beneath. Knowing that no car he should enter will pick him up at night, the hitchhiker turns and walks to the right, his body exhausted, ready for sleep.

Crossing the overpass, the rough voices beneath sounding both like a threat and salvation, the hitchhiker moves beyond the reach of Barstow’s last lights. Turning from the road into the darkness and twinkle of the night’s first stars, he heads into the desert, paralleling the highway below him. He sees the ground at his feet — sage brush, big berry manzanita, seep willow and mulefat hugging loose stones, outcroppings of rock pressing up through the hard-packed earth. The textures and depth of things reduced to flat shapes by the night.

A few hundred feet from the road, the hitchhiker crouches behind a manzanita and peers through its brittle leaves toward the spot where he first left the pavement. He holds that position. Time passes. From the direction of Barstow, headlights approach. They near the spot where the hitchhiker first stepped off the road to find a place to bed down for the night. He watches, unmoving, as the Maverick with the rope coil passes, accelerating into the darkness. The hitchhiker’s eyes follow the car, his body still, until the tail lights recede out of view into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to the northwest. With his eyes still on the road, he unfastens the cloth sleeping bag from the bottom of his backpack, lays it out behind the bush, wedges the backpack beneath the manzanita’s low brittle greenery and lays on the sleeping bag and waits for the image. Three women on top of him. One riding his cock, one sitting on his face, the third—the oldest—moving her mouth and fingers between the other two. Her tongue playing over them, orchestrating the scene. Her hands on their bodies, running over nipples and bellies, full lips and firm, fatted hips and the sun-burned skin of shoulders. Ladling his balls as he drives upward. Controlling his motion, she moves onto his chest, straddling, guiding the cock-rider’s climax which brings on the climax of the woman riding his tongue. And then he comes, on a belly and his ownin hand, as the three moan, sated and grateful for their bodies and this moment in the wide open night—none of it destined to fade, all of it just as real as the spooge, hot but cooling, sticky and fragrant on the skin of the hitchhiker’s smooth belly and chest.

Alone in the desert, he stares at the stars in their relentless, off-kilter, slow revolution. From route 15, he hears the ineffectual sound of individual cars speeding past and the river rush of semis convoying onward. And in the silence in between, occasional shouts from under the overpass. Men’s voices coughing out into the night – laughter or argument, a raising and lowering of volume like flames rising, guttering and rising again from a log as it burns itself out. The voices crescendo—“fuck!” A scuffle? Finally a fight? Then laughter again and the fire dwindles. But the threat so near — a stone’s throw away — is enough to keep his head turned toward the overpass and his body rigid, preventing him from stripping down, slipping between the sleeping bag’s musty layers and warming himself into a fitful but much-needed sleep.

With his eyes open to the world around him, his body still, then twitching, then still again, tensing his muscles against fits of shivers and chattering teeth, the night passes, inexorably slow.

Before sunrise, the sky pale in the east, the hitchhiker kneels, rubs his face and hair, and stands. He reaches down to his feet, legs bent, and puts a finger down his throat. He retches, but nothing comes up. Spitting, he rolls his sleeping bag, lashes it to his pack with bungee cords and walks over the ground he walked the night before, noticing none of his tracks—the ground hard enough, the vegetation meagre enough in its placement that nothing bent or snapped with his footfalls.

He comes to the road, turns to the left toward Barstow, and walks over the overpass. Looking down the on ramp toward the highway lining away to the north, the hitchhiker sees a man. He is gaunt and dirty, a scruff of beard above a loose flannel shirt. Seeing the hitchhiker, the man walks up the ramp.

“Heading North?”

The hitchhiker nods, smiles and looks down at the highway running north like a thread stretched under the whitening new day.

“Well, I’ll take the first ride,” the man says to the hitchhiker, smiling, then leans forward from the stomach, a threat. “Got here first. And have to get the hell out of here, too. Can’t get out of here too fast.”

The hitchhiker nods at the man, agreeing to give him the first ride, and the scrawny man tells the hitchhiker how he had spent the night under the overpass with three other men. And the other men all knew each other. They told the scrawny man that they were heading south and east, back down to Oceanside and the naval base there. And as the night when on, one thing leading to another, bottles coming out, being emptied and tossed away, the men had taken him. Friendly at first, almost a joke. Looking through his things like they were interested in a trade. That’s how it started. Then pushing him down, taking his bag and everything he had as he’d struggled to get up. Reassuring him — “Settle down, Partner. Whoa, there, Buddy. You got to relax.” — And after they’d gone through the bag, taken what they wanted and thrown aside the rest, the scrawny man said, they kept coming. For him. His blood and skin. His body — “Coming for the brown eye” — and his life.

“Held them off with this,” the scrawny man said, pulling the rusted top of a tuna can from his shirt pocket and holding it toward the hitchhiker’s face. One side of it was wrapped in cloth. The man gave it a quick jab forward, causing the hitchhiker to twitch. “Never know what you’re going to have to do, you know?” said the scrawny man. “But this did the trick. Found it on the ground where I fell. All night long, you know? Them fuckers around me like jackals. But I held them off, you know. The whole Goddamn night. Backed up against one of them cement pillars, you know? And glad it was there so I had something safe at my back. Keep them in front of me.” The scrawny man paused. Looked over his shoulder at the back a VW bus with a Grateful Dead sticker on its bumper wheezing slowly north like a bug on the highway below them. He turned back to the hitchhiker. “Remember that, you know?” he said, as if referring to the thing he’d just said and to the bumper sticker and the bus. “Keep them in front of you. Keep something solid at your back. So you got less area to cover, you know? That’s a little bit of knowledge I’m giving you for free. Might save your ass someday.”

Nodding, smiling and looking down, the hitchhiker gave the scrawny man the ramp, retreating to the parking lot of the bar he had left the evening before. The parking lot was empty, too early for anything to be open. Not yet five in the morning, the hitchhiker guessed by the quality of the light. He walked to the back of the building and sat on a cement step, his back against the bricks of the building, a knot in his stomach, his head throbbing with hunger. Looking north into the distance, he leaned the back of his head against the building, felt it’s coolness and wished in his heart to one day be the sort of man who could tell that kind of story – holding off three men with the top of a tuna can; staying on his feet through the night; defending himself in the open with what the world offered him and what he could take. He wanted more than anything to be that kind of man. To have that story and the wisdom that came with it. He knew that if he had that, it would matter. People would think something of him. They would appreciate him and would want to know his story. They would know he had accomplished something, and they would care.




BIO: I have an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where I studied with Noy Holland and John Wideman, who awarded me the Slosberg Memorial Award for Substantial and Worthy Achievement in Prose. My work has appeared in Pindeldyboz, The Heat City Review, The Fifth Street Review, Aura and other publications.