The Trail is Fresh

Front Desk

“So, you know him?” The Marriott receptionist, Pearl, faced Lila from behind the front desk.

“Yes.”

“Well, he left some stuff behind. We’ll hold it for thirty days then we have to dispose of it.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Travel stuff. Clothes, toiletries.” She paused. “Liquor.”

“When did he leave again?”

“Like I said, it’s hard to say. He checked in five days ago and paid for three nights. We needed the room and went in to clean it and discovered his stuff still in there. It was a bit of a mess, too.”

“What about security cameras?”

“I’m sorry, what is your relationship to him again?”

Lila paused. “I’ve been asking myself that for years. Let’s just say I’m a really good friend.”

“Well, I’ve told you all I can. He owes a cleaning fee which he’ll need to pay in order to get his things back. You’re welcome to wait in our lobby. There’s coffee.”

“I guess I’ll wait, then,” Lila said and turned to the lobby which was trying hard to look like America’s sterile living room, complete with fake fireplace. The endless droning scroll of cable news came from a TV above the mantle. “Can I turn the volume down?”

“I’m sorry, no. Marriott policy states that it should be set at five during daylight hours. It’s funny you should ask, though. Your friend wanted to turn it off, got in an argument with a guest, then went on and on about obese America being force fed junk news. Cheetos News Network, he kept saying. ‘Think for yourself!’ he yelled, and took off right before the manager called the police. I think he was intoxicated.”

“That sounds like him.”

The phone rang. “Excuse me,” the girl said and turned away. Lila went over to one of the sofas. She would just close her eyes for a minute, and gather her thoughts for the next move. It was probable that JJ left a trail of memorable encounters, similar to the “junk news” tirade. She could just canvas the bars and liquor stores like some old gumshoe. Or, she could just wait despite the loud TV. Or, maybe…

Back to the counter. “I’m sorry, are there vacancies?”

“Do you want a room?”

“I need some rest and a home base. Maybe you can call me if he returns.”

“I can do that.” Pearl smiled. “I’m off in an hour but Stephen knows who he is, too. He’ll call you.

“Stephen?”

“Yeah, my replacement.” Pearl looked left and right and leaned closer to Lila.   “You’re friend told him to come out of the closet.” Pearl whispered. “He said that Stephen needed to just open that door wide and come crashing out, knock over some furniture, and make his mark.”

“Is Steven … gay?”

“I have no idea,” Pearl said, laughing. She tapped at the keyboard. “Does your friend ever get beat up?”

Lila thought back. Yes, JJ had taken a few punches since she’d known him. However… “He doesn’t really need other people to beat him up,” she said. “He does a pretty good job of hurting himself.”

“Oh, well. I hope you find him, anyway. I need a credit card and an ID for the room. I’ll give you the online rate. $109 for tonight.”

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Switchback

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JJ watched the parking area from the trees.   It reminded him of another time when he watched and decided, back when the cops were looking for him at college. Was that even real, or just something he imagined?

He could just see the top of Cody’s dirt colored pickup truck over the guardrail. He couldn’t see the Camaro at all. He checked his pocket for the key. Still there. He couldn’t see Tess or Cody and hadn’t heard their voices in awhile. He would wait. They were waiting. The flaw in his plan of going over the guardrail and hiding until they departed now became apparent. They could wait in the truck. He was outside. Night would come, it would get cold, and he would be fucked. JJ could always see the first few steps of a plan clearly, but beyond that…

Lila always said that about him. Too impulsive, she would say, never thinks ahead. Destructive to himself and those close by. If only she could see him now.

But JJ always answered that he was flexible and could shift on the fly. It was good not to be tied to any long range plan. This flexibility, this adaptivity, it complemented his destructive side like the beautiful sunsets caused by the ash of a volcano eruption. Just keep moving with fresh hope before the daunting despair sets in. So, after about an hour, he started walking down hill, picking his way through the trees and fallen timber, zigzagging along the path of least resistance. He knew he would come to the road again, lower down, since it switch-backed up to the pass. Just when he thought he should be seeing the road, he heard a tractor trailer grinding up the hill and saw it’s bulk through the trees. A minute later, he reached the guardrail and hopped over. Time to hitch a ride.

He had hitch hiked before and he tried now to exude the vibes and demeanor of a sane person, perhaps in trouble, but not unhinged, someone who good people wanted to help. Hitch hiking, like ringing someone’s doorbell, was dying in an increasingly paranoid and self-centered 21st century America. But, this was Colorado, where things were freer and easier, or so it seemed. Right on, bro, and where ya headed, dude. JJ stuck his thumb out.

It wasn’t long. The first car slowed as it approached, driver peering at him, scanning for weapons or a maniacal expression, then stopped just beyond. JJ trotted over to the passenger door and opened it. Marijuana smoke billowed out. And on cue, the longhaired thirty-something Colorado pseudo hippy leaned over and spoke. “Need a ride, man?”

JJ loved Colorado.

“Yeah, please,” JJ said. “Just up the hill a ways. My car’s up there.”

“Right on.”

He hopped in and the driver pulled back onto the highway.

“Listen,” JJ said. “After the switchback, you’ll see a bright blue sports car in a pullout. I need you to get right alongside it and let me out quick.”

“Is it car trouble?”

“People trouble.”

“Alright man. I don’t wanna get hurt, though.”

“No worries. They only want me and my signature.”
“Right on.”

They slowed and made the switchback, then climbed toward the pullout. As they approached, JJ could see that both cars were there, Cody’s truck parked about 10 yards behind the Camaro. Tess was outside the truck, looking down the hill, over the guardrail. Cody was in the truck. “Ok”, he said. “Pull up quickly next to the Camaro then get outta here.”

“Awright, here we go. Good luck.”

JJ used the key fob button to unlock the Camaro as they pulled alongside. He opened the door and jumped out.

“Power to the people,” the helpful hippy yelled.

JJ heard Tess yell but he was already in the drivers seat and starting the car. He put it in gear and roared off, passing the helpful hippy and roaring uphill. He looked in the mirror and saw the pickup pulling out and passing the hippy too.

2017 Hyper Blue Metallic Camaro vs. ten-year-old dirt-colored pickup truck on curvy mountain roads?

See ya later.

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Jumping the Guardrail

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The plan was, they’d drive back to town, JJ and Tess in the Camaro, Cody following in his pick-up. They would meet the attorney who facilitated the auction sale of the ranch ASAP. In the meantime, Tess would not leave JJ’s side. It was unspoken but understood that JJ could always run for it, but the next meeting with Cody would be very unpleasant. Besides, where would he go? They took his wallet and he had no cash or card.

As they drove up the valley and entered cell coverage, JJ’s phone vibrated and he looked at the screen. Eight text messages, all from Lila.

“Who’s looking for you?”

“No one,” JJ said. He had 4% battery in the phone, and no way to charge it. Most of his stuff was still in the hotel in Fort Collins.

“Must be someone,” Tess said.

“The lawyer. The bank. Checking in.”

“Checking in? By text?” Tess grabbed his phone. “No texting and driving,”

“Hey!”

“Oooooh, look at this. A lady friend coming to the rescue? Lila? That there’s a nice name.”

“Give me that!”

They were heading up toward the pass at the head of the valley, climbing up the long switchbacks as the scrubland of the valley turned to forest. There was a steep drop now on the passenger side. Tess rolled down the window and backhand tossed his phone out, well over the guardrail.

“What the fuck!” JJ swerved into a pull-off, a scenic vantage point with a view of the valley below. Cody’s pickup skidded to a stop behind them. JJ was out of the Camaro and trotting back down the highway along the shoulder, looking down the slope at the loose rocks and trees. It was pretty steep and rugged. The phone was a goner. It would take hours and too much luck to find it. And even if he found it, it was likely cracked and broken.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Cody was watching him from the parking area. Tess was out of the Camaro.

JJ looked up toward Cody and Tess. The Camaro caught his eye, hyper-blue and metallic, reflecting sunlight even while dusty. Why had he rented that thing again? It was garish and flashy, so obviously a compensation or cry for attention. He had the keys in his hand. JJ pointed the fob at the car and pushed the lock button. The tell-tale beep. Then he jumped over the guardrail and managed a controlled slide down the bare rocky hill toward the pine trees. JJ rode the little landslide of rocks and dirt, dust rising, turned to the side, leading with his downhill leg. He put his hand down once on something sharp, some mean and pointy mountain plant. Otherwise, he reached the trees intact and looked up toward the road. Cody and Tess looked down at him but showed no signs of pursuit. They stayed like that as the dust blew away and settled.

“Where’re you gonna go now, Fucko?” Cody yelled. JJ looked around. He moved down a little more to get in amongst the trees. He crouched down behind two trees that grew close together and peered between them, back up the slope. Cody and Tess were gesticulating and appeared to be arguing. JJ crouched and moved parallel to the road, staying in the trees, about forty or fifty yards, so he was below the pull-off were the cars were parked. Then he crouched behind another two trees and peered back up. They were still there, off to the left, arguing.

JJ hunkered down to wait. His heart pounded and he couldn’t seem to catch his breath in the thin air. He would just wait and see if they stayed or if they went.

Or, if they came down for him.

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Confrontation in the Valley

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Cody said, “So how’re we gonna make it so you’re gone from our land?”

They stood, the three of them, on the deserted ranch in the mountain valley.

“Cody, listen,” Tess said.

“No, you listen. You hijacked this guy to buy our land back. You took advantage. You saw the opportunity. Good for you. Good for us. Now you think you have feelings for him. Or your ashamed or some such shit.”

JJ said, “Wait, I think we…”

“Shut the fuck up! This here’s a family matter first.”

Tess said, “Yes, I took advantage. But, he’s a really nice guy.”

“You’re confusing nice with scared as shit. This fucker don’t even know where he is.” Cody turned to JJ. “Where are we?”

JJ looked around. Mountain ranges flanked the valley. There was that sense of vastness, glorious and daunting, he always felt in the West. The sky was way up there, far above the land. It was impossible to not feel small and limited out here.   Right-sized. Humility, uncomfortable and undeniable, was forced on you. They were always talking about humility in AA, how humility was the key to sobriety. Well here it was, for real. God’s presence was everywhere, if there was any God at all.

“I’ll tell you where we are,” JJ said. “We’re on my ranch. That’s where we are.”

Birds chirped nearby and the muffled roar of a distant wind grew from way up the valley, way up high.

“And how’re you gonna sign it over,” Cody asked.

“I’m not. I’m keeping it.”

The wind from the heights was coming down the valley now. JJ loved how you could hear it miles away, hear it growing like an approaching train, then it was upon you, sometimes little more than a breeze, sometimes a serious gust. You didn’t know which, but you could hear it coming. Sometimes it missed you entirely.

“Jason,” Tess said, “This here land’s been in our family since…a long time. Our people used to live here. Our parents are dead and you did a good thing buying it from the bank.”

“He wants it for himself,” Cody said. “Maybe I can convince him.” He walked back to his truck and got in.

“Jason, listen,” Tess whispered. “He’s crazy. Just tell him what he wants to hear and then we’ll work something out.”

Cody started the truck, put it in gear, and, engine revving, lurched toward JJ’s rental Camaro. The truck looked like it would drive right over the Hyper-blue metallic sports car, like a fullback breaking through the line and pancaking some defensive back. He skidded to a stop just short of the car. Cody rolled down the window. “Last chance, fucker. We can go back to town all together and straighten this out. Or you can walk back and think more about it. ‘Cause if you don’t tell us what we want to hear, I’m crushing this fuckin car.”

“Cody! No!” Tess ran toward the truck, stopped halfway and looked back at JJ. “Please,” she said. “Please just let us have it.”

“Last chance, sucker,” Cody yelled, revving and lurching the truck closer.

Options scrolled through JJ’s head. A lawyer, letting them have it, renting it to them, buying time, turning the tables…

“All right! Stop!”

“And?”

“I’ll sign it over.”

“He’ll sign,” Tess yelled. “Cody!”

Cody stared at JJ, calculating. Then he shut down the truck as a cold gust finally reached them, rustling sage and shrub, and rolling tumbleweeds down the valley.

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Care Taking and Taking Leave

Branches

Back east, Lila and Carl, JJ’s best friends in the world, were shacked up in JJ’s farm house, care taking, and failing to care for each other.

“I think we’re done here,” Lila said. “If you can’t even say how you feel.”

“Now I see why he ran away from you over and over and over,” Carl said. “All this processing!” He sat at the table with his head in his hands, massaging his temples, trying to knead something away.

“Who said he was the one? You think it’s easy being around that erratic drunk?” Lila stood in the kitchen doorway, blocking passage to the rest of the house. “I just want to know what the hell we’re doing here?”

“Care taking,” Carl said. “Place holding.”

“Taking care of what? Holding who’s place?”

“Purgatory,” Carl muttered.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“I just want some clarity,” Lila said. “I mean, we’re in his house, he’s away, probably in trouble, and your wife wants you back.”

“There’s no going back. Not after this.”

“After this, what?”

“This…this…What the hell is this?”

“That’s what I want to know!”

They were silent, Carl looking at the table top, trying to divine some message from the wood grain and swirls. Lila stared right through the hunched form of Carl, trying to figure out what had happened these past couple months. It seemed so right in the summer. Right, but wrong, like one more drink on a Tuesday night. Or buying something big and unneeded on credit. The worst part? She couldn’t stop thinking (worrying!) about JJ. Of course, they were living in his house so there were reminders everywhere. But, he had that look the last time she saw him, that dead-eyed autopilot doomed look, like a suicide bomber tying up loose ends before the mission.

“It’s time for you to go home,” she said.

It was heavier now, the silence. The crackle had gone out of the air and the next thing that was said would change everything.

“I know,” Carl said. “I know.” He looked up and grinned at her. “I always knew this was just…”

“Temporary,” Lila said.

“And wrong,” Carl said. “He’s a complete piece of shit sometimes, and maybe we needed to do this, to punish him.”

“But we love him.”

“You love him. I’m just the friend who shacked up with his girlfriend.”

“Is that what this was? Our way of punishing him?”

“Well, after we scratched the itch. After all, we moved into his house!”

“To care take.”

Carl got up and put out his hand. Lila looked at it then laughed and embraced him. They parted and Carl looked at the floor. “Listen, I’ll look after this place so don’t worry.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, since you’re going to Colorado. Don’t worry about JJ’s house.”

Going to Colorado? Lila thought it and knew it was true. What else was there to do?

“Take care,” Carl said and headed out the door, back towards his wife and home. “Let me know when you’re gone and I’ll come get my things.”

            “I will,” she said and went to find her laptop to book a flight to Denver. “It’ll be soon.”

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Sucker?

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Morning. JJ and Tess, a woman he hardly knows, camped at an abandoned mountain ranch. His land. Her land. Whose land?

They leaned on an old fence, eating Pop Tarts. A vehicle approached down the long dirt road to where they were camped, a cloud of dust rising behind.

“Oh shit, that must be Cody,” Tess said.

“Who’s Cody?”

“Just my angry twin brother.”

Oh great. Angry brother. Cody. Twin. Twin telepathy. What kind of gun toting maniac was coming down the road?

“How does he know we’re here?”

“He doesn’t. Or he does. He just comes here.”

“He comes here? For what?”

“To get away,” Tess said. “He doesn’t like people much.”

An old Chevy pick-up came to a skidding stop and just sat there with the engine running. Cody drove angry. JJ couldn’t see him clearly for the glare off the windshield. But he knew Cody was looking at him. The engine shut off and made little ticks as it cooled. Some birds chirped and tweeted from the brush but no one moved. It was midmorning and warm in the sun, not a cloud in the sky. Finally, the door opened.

Cody was Tess with a buzz-cut, only his eyes were harder, solid blue ice where Tess’s were liquid blue. “Who’s this guy,” Cody asked.

“This here’s Jason,” Tess said.

“Is this your boyfriend?”

“No, not really,” JJ said. “We only met a couple days ago. I mean, we’re just friends. New friends.” JJ walked toward Cody with his hand extended. “Nice to meet you.”

Cody looked at the hand like JJ held out a putrefying fish. He looked at JJ’s face. “What are you two doing here?”

Tess walked forward and got between JJ and Cody. “Cody, this here’s a miracle! Jason bought the ranch at the auction. He bought the ranch for us!”

JJ and Cody both looked at Tess. Cody stared with disbelief of the, “here’s some more of Tess’s bullshit” variety. JJ was just trying to keep up.

“I felt something,” Cody said. “Yesterday. I knew something was happening out here.”

The twin telepathy. Fuck.

“Um, yeah,” JJ said. “I bought the ranch.”

“I’m sure it was out of the goodness of your heart,” Cody said, looking at JJ over Tess’s shoulder. “What’re you up to?”

If JJ were honest, he’d say: “I left Massachusetts because my best friend was getting together with my erstwhile girlfriend, who was my other best friend. I tried to write a memoir but instead started drinking, which is really bad for me. I flew to Colorado on the advice of a guy named Shaboo and kept drinking. I’ve been here before, trying to find myself, so I thought I’d try again. Instead I found your twin sister in a blackout. She convinced me to visit the bank where we put in a bid two minutes before the auction ended. Phone calls were made and the remainder of my lottery winnings were transferred from my bank. I signed some papers and here we are.”

Instead, JJ said, “I dunno.”

“Well here’s the deal, man,” Cody said. “This ranch has been in our family since the 1800’s and no fuckin’ boytoy of my sister is going to own it. Where are the papers?”

“Still at the bank,” Tess said.

Cody looked around and seemed to notice the Camaro for the first time. “What the hell kind of car is that?”

“That’s a Hyper Blue Metallic Chevy Camaro,” JJ said with a renter’s pride. He would keep his dignity through all this no matter what, he vowed.

Cody snorted. “Jesus, she saw you coming a mile away. The plates should read, SUCKER.”

Tess said, “It wasn’t like that, Cody. He offered to help.”

Cody chuckled and walked to the Camaro, appraising. Tess whispered to JJ, “It wasn’t like that. We’ll figure something out.”

“I’m sure we will,” JJ said. “Things always work out for me.”

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Detoxing in the Mountain Air

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Withdrawing from alcohol. A mesh of electricity humming just under the skin, complete with unpredictable twitches, some lunatic doctor behind the one-way glass delivering voltage. Also, the feeling (the certainty!) of impending doom and imminent threat. Shadows behind rocks are crouching gargoyles, vigilant and silent. There is a lurking monster behind that tree right over there, some stick figure, an upright mantis keeping very still. And this woman, Tess, next to JJ in a sleeping bag under the mountain stars. They are camped on his land apparently, JJ’s land, in this valley in northern Colorado.

JJ lays on his side, shaky and alert, watching the trees and rocks, and wonders how the hell this happened. He knows the what, where and when. With the last of his lottery money, he bought this old mountain ranch that had once been in Tess’s family. But how? Why? Whither?

Next to him, Tess shifts in her sleeping bag, the nylon rustle amplified in the deep quiet. Is she asleep? JJ can’t get comfortable in his sleeping bag. He’s warm, he’s cold, he’s hot. Clammy nylon sticks to his cheek. His breath is fetid and there is a weird smell coming from his body, like the smell of an examining room in a hospital, some antiseptic cleaner trying hard to cover up the smell of human excreta- sweat, blood, urine, etc.  Also, there’s this rubber glove smell coming from God knows where. He must be getting better if he can catalogue these smells and place them in a hospital. Though, of course, he does feel more like a patient than a healthy human. He is detoxing.

This woman, Tess. Something is off but he can’t put his finger on it. She certainly smiles a lot. That’s never a good sign. She’s attractive, at least physically. Fit and glowing and endowed with…endowments. But, there’s an aura of disaster and chaos around her, an untethered feeling that infects JJ. He feels the same way when watching news footage from the scene of some explosion- whirling police lights and silhouettes moving and milling in a smoky background. You kind of want to be there, to see it, to have a part in it. To help out. That can’t be good. What did Dr. Shays once say to him? “Your attraction to a certain kind of person is automatic. It is machinery that you can’t see working. It chooses what it needs and by the time you catch up, it’s too late. You’re being ground up.”

JJ’s machine likes chaos. That’s why he could never stick with Lila. She’s crazy, but not crazy enough, too grounded to feed the beast.

But this Tess. She’s not right but she’s also very…very…alluring. Mysterious. Unpredictable?  More like erratic.

A voice, muffled coming from inside the horizontal lump of sleeping bag next to him. “Are you thinking about me?”

JJ shifts onto his back and looks into the vast mountain sky. Stars and stars and stars.

“Yes,” he says.

Tess sighs and again the voice muffled, coming from somewhere hidden, beneath the surface.

“That’s good,” the voice says. “That’s really good.”

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