A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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O’Reilly always said he wanted to be free. Free, free, free. Good for him, I say. I used to tell him, OK, you be free, and I’ll be fifteen dollars an hour, and we’ll see who pays the rent first.
He would laugh at that. He has a great sense of humor, I give him that. It makes up for a lot. I don’t think we could have gotten through quite so much together if he hadn’t been so ready to laugh at himself. And if I hadn’t.
I met him in the desert. He still places great significance on that — but then, he has one of those significance-placing minds. He says it symbolizes the spiritual wasteland of modernity, and purificatory rites, and the despair and storm of emptiness that precedes the still, small voice of God. Me, I say it was hot, and dry, and the beer was warm, and the damned truck was broken. He says I’m the mudguard on the wheels of evolution. Still, we get along OK most of the time.
About the truck — don’t get me wrong. Marie and I understand each other. She understands that I have to get from here to there and I understand that while she is the crankiest machine ever put together, she will, eventually, with enough screwing around and lavish attention, get me from here to there. It’s usually a matter of which piece to fix. That’s one thing about Chevys, you can always find pieces of them. The landscape of America is littered with old Chevy trucks, and it’s seldom long before I find a piece that fits, or at least fits well enough to get me to the next piece. It’s getting to be like that with the Japanese, too; I suppose when the day comes and Marie breathes her last — God bless her — my next truck will have to be a Toyota. But that’s getting into very complicated areas.
I used to call Marie the Virgin Motherfucker, which offended O’Reilly’s sensibilities. He was raised Catholic, you see. I have a lot of sympathy for that. It’s like those Chinese women you see pictures of from the older days, who had their feet bound as kids. The Catholics basically wrap up a kid’s soul in the same way. It’s an art form with them, like bonsai trees; they’ve been perfecting it for two thousand years. O’Reilly busted out before he got too cramped — free, free, free, and all that — but he’s still touchy at times. You can imagine hobbling around a little painfully for a while after you’ve cut that shit off your feet, no matter how soon you got wise to it. And like I say, I’m sympathetic, having been raised Episcopalian myself, which is, as far as I can tell, a less-efficient brand of Catholicism. So I let go of the nickname and started calling Marie the Black Madonna — Black, since she’s black, and Madonna since I had already established that she was a virgin you-know-what.
O’Reilly liked that OK.
So anyway, the desert. I was heading north, O’Reilly was heading west. Arizona is a big state — you try to figure the odds that we would run into each other at that little X-marks-the-spot in space and time. It’s beyond me. I call it the most incredible luck. O’Reilly says it was synchronicity — which as far as I can tell means luck.
His story is that we met at midnight, which is bullshit. It was three in the afternoon, Good Friday, 1976. He also says he had been in the desert forty days and forty nights, which again is bullshit. I attribute it to his Catholic upbringing again. The guy’s vocabulary was formed at an early age. The fact is, he had slept out a few nights and probably eaten a few of the right kind of mushrooms, and he had been having conversations with stones and clouds and God, and shit like that.
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t hold that against him. Live and let live, I say. It’s not my way to interfere with someone’s social life, or to judge anyone too harshly by the kind of company he keeps. I’ll admit I was a little uneasy with some of the hairier demons and gargoyles and stuff that O’Reilly was dealing with along about the second day out there in the desert, but hey — as my ma used to say about my grungier friends — as long as they wipe their feet at the door, check their weapons, and keep their hands off the china. I’m telling you all this stuff so that you’ll have some idea of what I had to deal with by the time it came down to trying to get O’Reilly home.
And it did come down to that.
When I say “home,” by the way, I mean it in the broadest sense of civilization as we know it, as well as in the more limited sense of a place with — hopefully — hot running water and clean sheets, where you can get your mail. O’Reilly, when I met him, was hopelessly out of touch with both these conceptions of home and with everything in between. Worse still, he believed that such notions were dispensable. That’s his word, by the way, not mine: “dispensable.” He was, he said, home already — meaning by “home,” as far as I could tell, something atmospheric that he was building out of diaphonic humming and the primary colors, and various configurations of stones.
I still say I saved his life. He says maybe, in a “strictly physical sense,” but that he forgives me for it; but he also says — and he says this more often, and he usually tries to say it last — maybe not. I say hah. I suppose he still thinks he could have flown in. Certainly that was what he thought at the time, which I’m here to tell you complicated things enormously. It was bad enough trying to keep enough water in the radiator of the truck to keep it moving at all without having to stop every quarter of a mile and sit in that sun while O’Reilly got out for some exercise — to “stretch his wings.” He kept saying, “I have to fly, I have to fly”; and it finally got to the point, when our gas was getting too low to keep turning the truck on and off so much, where I had to tell him flat-out, “Look, dammit, if you have to fly, fly inside the truck cab while we’re moving, because I don’t think we can afford to stop just now.” To his credit, he accepted that — I think he thought he was humoring me.
I t was a helluva place to be in, a Godforsaken place, as they say. Nothing but sand and scrub and snakes and a few mesas that seemed close but always kept moving back into the heat ripple as you approached. I doubt that there were more than a couple of cars a month along that stretch of road. It was so far out that the road signs were in Zuni, or something like that; we later came to find out that not even the Indians really used that road anymore, most of them having concluded, with the rest of the world, that it led nowhere. A dead end, to put it plainly. O’Reilly, of course, says that that was significant too, the stone the builder rejected and all, and that dead ends give rise to fresh creative possibilities, et cetera and so on, yakkety-yak; but when the dead end is 120 in the shade and there isn’t any shade, I don’t see much freshness coming in. He’d have been fried possibility if I hadn’t brought him back. He’d have dried out like a piece of beef jerky, and all the synchronicity in the world couldn’t have reconstituted him.
I suppose you’re wondering what I was doing there. The fact is, I was lost. I mean that in a very specific, local sense, by the way — I was heading north and I missed a turn. I could show you on a map, right here, bingo, I fucked up. Not like O’Reilly, who still says he wasn’t lost because he wasn’t going anywhere.
Or sometimes he’ll say he was lost, yeah, just as we are all lost, as life itself is a great cosmic wandering, et cetera again and so forth. I’m telling you, don’t get him started; he’s the only guy I know who could make a cosmic virtue out of the simple fact of having lost his map and dropped his compass.
Anyway, he was heading west. I know that because when I picked him up he was coming from the east, leaving footprints in a line as straight as an arrow. He was heading for the place where the sun goes down, and for somebody who wasn’t going anywhere, he was hellbent. He had that wild-eyed, distant, fixed look he gets, his eye on something far away, and no matter what he says about cosmic drift and the gentle winds of fate, I’m here to tell you he was flat-out trucking. I watched as he approached the spot on old Zuni road nine-three where Marie’s radiator had chosen to boil over. He was making a beeline west, and despite the fact that I was probably the only other human being for five hundred square miles and certainly the first one he had seen in days and the last one he was going to see for a long time indeed on the vector he was on, he showed no signs of stopping as he passed. He didn’t even slow down, just trucked on past without blinking an eye. If I hadn’t grabbed him, the next port of call on that heading of his was either Los Angeles or what some of the local Indians still call the Land of the Dead in those dry mountains in between.
H e didn’t have a drop of water with him — he had just sprinkled the last of what he did have on the ground in some kind of offering or something. God had told him to, and O’Reilly at that point was too far gone to argue with God even over something as fundamental as that. My own relations with God are much more qualified, and include some give-and-take. I personally believe that if Abraham had just had the plain good sense to tell God to piss off when God commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac, instead of playing along and setting a bad precedent by encouraging that kind of crap, the course of Western history would have been a lot healthier. Even for God it was out of line; it was the kind of immature power thing a lot of the gods of that day and age indulged in, and someone should have told him. I don’t want to have anything to do with a God who is incapable of listening to constructive criticism.
O’Reilly, obviously, has a relationship with God that includes a lot more blind trust. He calls me Oh-Ye-Of-Little-Faith, Oyolf for short. But the fact remains that it was me and Marie who hauled O’Reilly and his ideas of God out of that desert, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that if I had been sprinkling my water on the ground in tripped-out demonstrations of faith instead of putting it in the truck’s radiator. Pray to God, sure, but row away from the rocks.
To complicate matters, O’Reilly was convinced that God in his inscrutable wisdom had cut his soul into a thousand pieces and scattered them north, south, east, and mostly west, all over that stretch of desert; and this, understandably enough, was causing O’Reilly considerable distress.
A word on my own state at that time: inebriated. By the time I picked O’Reilly up, it had become clear to me that what water I did have was going to have to go into Marie’s radiator in carefully rationed increments if I was ever going to reach the land of air conditioning and plumbing again, and so I was relying for personal liquid replenishment on the case of beer I keep under the front seat at all times for just such water shortages and emergency celebrations. Given the amount of liquid I had replenished, my own perceptions and judgments were no doubt somewhat softened at the edges by then as well, but I still think that even had I been sober, simple kindness would have compelled me to do what I did — which was, of course, to help O’Reilly gather up the scattered pieces of his God-strewn soul as best we could, given radiator constraints and a dwindling supply of gasoline.
Aside from the beer, I was still laboring under my own private delusion that we were on a road that led north, a misconception which I relinquished only when we coasted with the gas gauge resting on E into an old adobe gas station along about sunset on the second day. We were probably the only customers the place had had in the last twenty years — the gas prices were from 1957 or something, and there was nothing but Coca-Cola in the original shapely bottles in the old-fashioned red cooler by the door. The old Indian who ran the place had a face that looked like a piece of leather that had been left in the sun for centuries, and he never said a word or cracked a smile at our situation, just pointed back, back the way we came. At that critical point, with a full tank of gas at last, and plenty of water from the rusty old pump out back, I couldn’t have agreed with him more. We were already a couple of hundred miles north of anywhere realistic, as far as I could tell — old Zuni road nine-three, which I wasn’t even sure we were on anymore, as I hadn’t seen a sign for more than twenty-four hours, hadn’t been on a single one of my half-dozen maps to begin with. We had been driving for days in a big blank, a void of the kind that the old cartographers used to border with grinning demons and label with things like “Beyonde Here Be Monsters.” So I was more than ready to pack it in, cut my losses, drive south again until we got back to the recognizable world, and head for I-15 by way of Hoover Dam, like I should have in the first place. I even had a vague idea of driving fifty-three miles an hour all the way once I was on good old interstate concrete, maybe even getting in the slow lane behind a tourist family in a Winnebago, as a kind of penance, an offering of humility and gratitude to the gods of the Well-Traveled Routes. And submit all my future travel plans to Triple-A six months in advance, and follow those routes they mark out on the maps for you with magic marker. It was a deep moment for me; I’ll admit I was shook. I was even having vaguely Episcopalian fantasies of metaphysical safety under the care of a relatively benign suburban God, with the approaches to salvation unambiguously marked out in green or purple ink — which leads me to conclude that much of organized religion is a kind of Triple-A of the soul.
O’Reilly had other ideas. While I dealt with the gas and water, checked Marie’s oil and poured in a couple of quarts, and in general acted as a sane man should, he was prowling around the gas station with the old yellow-brown dog that had befriended him upon our arrival. By the time I was ready to go, the two of them were nowhere to be seen. I circled the place three times, to the old Indian’s amusement, and finally found them hanging out in the broad rear seat of an old wrecked Chevy out back. It was the only shade around. O’Reilly had his feet up and was sipping on a Coke, and the dog was sprawled beside him with his tongue hanging out and his tail lazily fanning. They looked pretty relaxed; you got the sense that the relationship had come a long way in a short time.
“OK, O’Reilly,” I said. “Sorry to break up the party, but it’s time to saddle up. We’re heading south.”
“South?” he said, looking faintly stubborn in a way I had come to dread after forty-eight hours of bizarre negotiations.
“Yeah, south,” I said. “The old Indian says south.”
“Well, the dog says north,” O’Reilly said, and glanced at the old hound, as if giving him a chance to confirm this. The dog just looked at me, panting genially. He wasn’t a bad-looking mutt, as old gas-station dogs go, but I wasn’t prepared to take his word for it. As I’ve already mentioned, at this point I was leaning toward Triple-A.
“Yeah, well,” I said, “the dog’s not driving. And besides —”
“I can walk,” O’Reilly said, and got out of the car. The dog scrambled out after him, and the two of them stood there looking at me. I’ll admit that, against all reason, I felt outnumbered. But I wasn’t going to argue with a dog. There are limits. There are limits.
Just then the old Indian who ran the gas station came out and joined the discussion. I say that advisedly — he didn’t speak a word of English, but went on a long riff in Zuni, to which O’Reilly and the dog listened attentively. By his hand motions, and facial expressions, he appeared to be describing in fairly lurid detail the hazards of every direction but south, and I began to relax. But when he finished talking, O’Reilly nodded and turned to me.
“He’s right,” he said. “I’m going west.”
“West!” I said, “Who said anything about west? There’s no road west!”
O’Reilly shrugged. It really didn’t matter to him. The sun was almost down by now, and the western horizon was aflame with red and gold beyond the mountains. In a couple of hours the temperature would drop forty or fifty degrees, and that T-shirt of his was going to feel mighty thin. “He says I should go west,” he said. “If I don’t go west, I’ll lose my soul, and it may take centuries to find it. That’s what I thought in the first place, but you got me into that truck — not that I hold that against you. . . .”
“You don’t even speak Zuni,” I pointed out. “How do you know what the fuck he’s —”
“It doesn’t matter,” O’Reilly said. “Roads don’t matter. Maps don’t matter, in something like this.”
“No, and water doesn’t matter, food doesn’t matter,” I said. “Shelter, plumbing, beds — none of it matters, right? Jeez, O’Reilly, what does matter?”
“God,” O’Reilly said. “God, God, God.” And he patted the dog on the head, nodded pleasantly to the Zuni, who nodded pleasantly back, and walked off toward the sunset.
I wish I could say I went after him. I don’t know if it’s a commentary more on me, or on him, that I didn’t. I just let him go. I sure as hell wasn’t going to drive Marie into that desert, and break an axle or something. But I couldn’t drive away, either. For once in my life, I really didn’t know what the fuck to do, so I just sat there, me and the Zuni and the dog, no English spoken here, for two days. Two solid days, and three long nights. By the time O’Reilly came back I had had time to wish a thousand times I had gone with him, or to wish I had never met him at all. And I had had plenty of time to wonder about myself.
He did come back, of course. He showed up on the morning of the third day — which again I am inclined to believe he did on purpose, as one more Catholic shtick — looking like hell, badly in need of a shave and a bath and a solid meal, with his ribs sticking out and his cheeks hollow, and a maddening, soft little secret smile on his face. He wasn’t talking much, he didn’t actually say anything for quite a while after that, but it was plain enough to me that he had indeed found the last pieces of his soul out there, that in some weird way he had been right to go west, and that the rest of that stuff really hadn’t mattered.
He’s functional now, of course, a basically normal guy. That’s what gets me — I look at him and marvel at what a ground of pure craziness that normality is built on. Even now when he gets to rapping too much — free, free, free — and I have to slow him down and tell him that even free he’s overpriced, and stuff like that, I don’t give him too hard a time. And he doesn’t give me too hard a time either, for which I am grateful, because I know he could. Because he knows how scared I was, and knows I flinched.
I say that now, anyway. At the time I was just pissed off, and mightily relieved. And, to top it off, we still didn’t drive south, even after all that. We took the dog’s advice, and went north. And worst of all, the dog was right — there was a state highway about twenty miles up the road, and ten miles down that there was a truck stop, with all the amenities. It was bizarre. I had steak and eggs, and a double order of hash browns, and glass after glass of cool, cool water, and I spoke English with the waitress, the cook, the cashier, I spoke English with anyone who would listen, while O’Reilly just sat there quietly, smiling.