Living Off the Land  
    Terry DeHart


His family travels to places where disaster has struck. Itís what theyíve always done for as long as he can remember, and there is no end to it in sight. Soon after he turns 16, Thomas isnít surprised to find himself behind the wheel of his fatherís old Cadillac. Thomas is a fast driver and the Cadillac flies straight and true down the interstate, and the family only touches down occasionally for food and fuel and rest. Theyíre moving again, and Thomas supposes his parents are letting him drive because they feel guilty about leaving another place, just when the street names and the faces of his schoolmates and how a room looks in the dim light of morning are becoming things he might want to claim as his own.

But Thomas knows they have to keep moving. His father is a building contractor who specializes in disaster repair--chasing tornado damage in the Midwest, rebuilding parts of San Francisco after the earthquake, and working on the big, new homes in the Oakland hills after the fire. For all his life, Thomas has moved out of neighborhoods that are newly rebuilt, with the echoes of power tools and laughing men and the smells of sawdust and fresh paint--and then arriving in places of funerals and looting and dirty tent cities. His school classmates have been survivors of the worst sorts of things: a girl whose mother burned up in a fire, a boy who was crippled when his house was destroyed by an earthquake, brothers who lost their parents when a freeway collapsed. Now his father is taking them to South Florida, "while the getting is good," in the wake of the latest hurricane.



Thomas isnít in a hurry to get to that devastation, but he likes the traveling part of it--looking out the car windows at the round, furrowed hills and pretending he can see the arc of the Earth at the far edges of the prairie. He is also beginning to realize that his rootless lifestyle gives him a certain freedom, where the law is concerned. In his pocket, he feels the hardness of the knife he stole three days ago from an Oakland hardware store. He pictures the unlocked glass cabinet. The clerk with his back turned. The sweaty adrenaline thrill and the quick grab that transferred the beautiful knife from its red velvet display mount to his pocket.

He wonít ever forget the first time he ran his fingers over the warm wooden handle, the smooth brass inserts, the flashing stainless blade. Heís armed now--not only with a sharp knife, but also with the knowledge that he might be able to take what he wants.



Miles down the road, when his parents are both asleep in the back seat, Thomas takes the old Cadillac up past 100 miles an hour. The carís massive, chrome-plated bumper and grille reflect the sunlight and cause the reflective lenses on the mile-markers to flash like winking eyes. East of the Rockies, white clouds float in the sky and make shadows on the plains below. Itís September and a damp wind leaks through the seals around the windows. The land gives off a complicated autumn smell--the musty hint of decay that comes after the harvest. Grasshoppers and hornets splatter against the windshield with an odd sort of rhythm.

Thomas steers the car with one hand. The big V-8 hums a baritone note and the Cadillac floats on its soft suspension and Thomas watches the vast American plains unwind under the tires. He begins to believe he could do this forever, staying in the fast, brave time that only exists between departures and arrivals. He hurtles past the wide-open spaces and the small clumps of buildings where people spend their entire lives on the same patches of dirt where their ancestors lived. He passes a collection of decaying mobile homes, what his father calls "tornado magnets" or "aluminum ghettos". He takes the Cadillac up to 120 miles-per and he feels as free as heís ever felt in his life.

But when his parents begin to stir behind him, he slows to the speed limit and sits up straight behind the wheel. He pretends to be the very model of youthful competence. His father yawns and stretches his thick arms, glances at the road signs and then at his watch, and he doesnít say anything about how fast Thomas mustíve been driving.

"Could you eat, boy?" he asks.

"Like a horse," Thomas replies.



They take a business loop off the interstate and they drive on a main street that seems slightly different than all the other small-town main streets Thomas has seen in his life. Tall wooden facades rise behind silver parking meters. There are small, honest-looking businesses lined in a row--a drugstore and a feed store and a sporting goods shop to supply the rifles and shotguns that give meaning to the gun racks of the pickup trucks around them.

Thomas drives slowly, trying to discover what is different about this town. His eyes focus upon a girl strolling on the sidewalk. The girl sees him looking and she smiles a shy smile at him. Sheís pretty, blonde and tan, wearing tight blue jeans and a white halter top, and Thomas tries to memorize the way she looks, in case he ever gets a chance to come this way again. Her eyes are blue, the color of a deep lake. Her breasts do a pert double-bounce as she walks, and Thomas feels an itch that seems to come from the bones inside his hands. He knows heíd do anything to lie with this girl for a few hours in a mound of sweet clover hay. He wants to find out things about her: her favorite color, what she wants to be, the place she likes best in the whole world, even if sheís never been anywhere else but here.

But then the girl steps into a drugstore, and Thomas feels as if heís missed an opportunity. Something that might have changed everything. He drives to the edge of town and stops at the Dairy Queen. His family leaves the stale, air-conditioned car, steps into the damp heat, and walks stiffly to the restaurant. There is a copper cowbell wired to the door and it clanks when the door closes behind them. The place is cool and empty and it has lighted pictures of perfect burgers and fries. Thomas devours a cheeseburger and then he slides to the edge of the plastic booth. He canít stop thinking about the pretty girl and all the people and places heíll never get to know. The idea of belonging makes his clothes feel rough against his skin and he suddenly needs to move. He asks his father if he can go sit in the car and his father smiles. "Going to do a little hunting, Tom?" he asks, and then he gets a thoughtful look and scratches the stubble on his chin. "Go ahead."



Thomas steps back into the blast of heat and the cowbell announces his departure. Itís dinner time and the small-town streets are nearly empty and there are only a few locals walking carefully out of the taverns. Thomasí sunglasses give the day a yellow tint, and the light seems to hang above the sidewalks and streets like the sky in an old photograph. Thomas walks along the sidewalk. He looks for the girl, knowing he doesnít have a chance in hell of finding her. He doesnít pay attention to where heís going, and he ends up on a street lined with pawn shops and bars. Inside a tavern, he hears a man's voice rise in anger.

"Foreclose on this, you little cocksucker."

Thomas hears the sound of liquid splashing on a floor and he hears a woman's laughter and then he feels a draft of cool air. A small man backs out of the tavern. The man is wearing a cowboy hat and an enormous belt buckle that has crossed pistols and "Smith & Wesson" engraved on it. The man jingles the keys in his pocket, then he stands directly in Thomas' path and lights a brown cigarette.

"Hey, you from this town, boy?" he asks Thomas.

The man has an accent, like heís from Texas. His face is segmented by deep lines, but they arenít the same as the honest lines on Thomas' mother's face. The manís mouth has a permanent pucker-shape, and Thomas understands quite suddenly that the man is no good for this small town. He is surprised by how protective the thought makes him feel. Without thinking, he looks the man in the eye.

"Yessir. I live here."

The man bends down over his round belly and uses a handkerchief to wipe droplets of liquid from his boots. He nods his head toward the bar. "Damned unfriendly folks in there. Wouldn't tell me where the Wilson ranch is at. Do you know it?"

"Sure," Thomas says. He hesitates, trying to understand why he should be loyal to a place he doesnít know, but he canít stop himself. He recalls the landmarks he'd seen from his father's car, and a lie rises and flows over his lips.

"Well sir, first you need to get on the interstate--headed west." The man crushes out his cigarette and takes a pen and a yellow notepad from his pocket. He begins to write.

"Go ahead," the man says. "Donít stop now, son, youíre on a roll."

"About ten miles out, there's a bunch of old mobile homes??go past that." Thomas watches the man write in a flashy, cursive style, and then he remembers seeing a dusty road that vectored far out onto the plain. "Look for a wide dirt road on your left." Thomas remembers the way that particular road had been arrow-straight, all the way to the horizon. "That's the one you want."

The man finishes writing and puts the notepad back in his pocket. He pulls out a rolled wad of bills, peels off a twenty, and gives it to Thomas.

"Just for being neighborly, you understand," the man says. He lights another cigarette and takes a puff, then he narrows his eyes and gives Thomas a suspicious look. "You sure thatís the right way?" Thomas smiles smoothly.

"Iíd know it if it wasnít," he says.

"I hope youíre not shining me on, boy," the man says. "Shit has a way of catching up to you, and thatís the one thing Iíve learned best in this life. You understand?"

"Yessir," Thomas says.

The man drops his cigarette and leaves it to burn itself out on the sidewalk. He hitches up his pants and gives Thomas another sharp look and then he turns and walks a bow-legged walk to his car. He settles himself into his big Mercedes and drives away in a cloud of diesel smoke.

Thomas pockets the money. He walks back to his father's car and puts down all the windows to let in the breeze that carries the after-summer dying smell. Heís hungry again, but he canít force himself to go back inside the restaurant where his parents are. This place has cast a spell over him, and he doesnít want to break it.

He sits in his fatherís car and listens to the hiss and whine of the interstate until those sounds fade into the background and then he turns on the radio, set to AM, and uses the stations to sample another place he knows heíll never possess. The radio picks up Country and Western and Fire and Brimstone and the sticky melodrama of elevator music. He finds a station that plays old rock-and-roll, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, interrupted every few minutes by over-boosted advertisements for pickup trucks.

"Come on down and see us," the announcer says in his friendly announcerís voice. "We been here three generations and WE HAVE YOUR TRUCKS!--big Ďuns and small Ďuns and four-buh-fours and pretty much whatever else your heart desires."

Thomas takes the knife from his pocket and rubs his fingers across the brass inserts of the handle. He opens the blade and with an unsteady hand he scrapes it against the thin hair on his forearm. He tries to picture what it would be like to steal a pickup truck, to be with the blonde girl and topped-out on the interstate. Stopping to make love by the side of the road. Eating in truck stops and sleeping in cool motels. Robbing folks, just for the thrill of it. Moving fast like a whirlwind and living off the land.

Then for the first time in his life, the excitement of traveling is gone. He shivers in the heat of the day. The mood lasts for only a few beats of his heart, then he begins to doubt things heís never doubted before. He doesnít want to cry, so he holds the knife in his hands. He tries as hard as he can to concentrate on getting the feel of the place where he is: Elvis and Jesus and cowboy hats and pretty girls in white halter tops, but he canít get a fix on things.



Thomas and his parents leave the town without looking back. Thomasí father drives in the fast lane and talks about how things will be when they get to where theyíre going.

"Youíll love it in Florida, boy. Thereís white, sandy beaches and palm trees and girls in bikinis."

"And churches and nice restaurants and good schools," his mother adds. "And government money and insurance money and charity money just dropping down out of the sky after that big hurricane," says his father.

Thomas has heard these tourism advertisements, before. He makes himself smile.

"What could be better than that?" he says.

The family is quiet for many miles. The car rolls across the long plains and Thomas sits alone in the back seat. He watches for signs of life out on the prairie and sometimes he hums along with the country music on the radio. He thinks again of girls and money and a world full of new places, but the joy has gone out of it.

At the end of the day, the clouds turn orange and red and purple. Thomas stretches onto his back and watches the storm of colors flare and then fade away. When it gets dark he tries to sleep, but heís distracted by the feeling a sunset can bring, when itís viewed through the windows of a fast-moving car.



Terry DeHart lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Sabra, and their two daughters. He works as a technical writer at NASA/Ames Research Center. His stories have been published in bananafish and Vestal Review, and another of his stories will be published in Blue Murder later this year. Terry has won or placed in a variety of writing contests and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 1998. He is currently working on his first novel.


 
 
 
 

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