It was a great day. Eleven o’clock on a beautiful sunny Monday morning driving southwest through Arizona and Jared Ingram was enjoying the hell out of cruising down the highway and listening to Grand Funk on the radio. He’d had a wonderful night’s sleep and a great breakfast and he wouldn’t trade places with anybody in the world. He was kind of on vacation, sort of. A friend of his had died and left him some money and he’d decided to see America before something happened to him too. As his dad used to say, life was a crap shoot.
He was in a 2010 Ford full-sized one-ton van that he’d used for work and he’d cleared it out and tossed in a few essentials and said goodbye to Denver the week before. Since then he’d just been enjoying whatever appeared out his windshield and the sound of his tires whining on the road. His original intention was to drive until the money ran out and then go back home, but now he didn’t know. A smart guy with skills, like him, could probably pick up as much money as he needed along the way to keep going for as long as he’d like.
It wasn’t that Jared longed to be an itinerant or spend his life on the road, it’s just that he was still young, only 26, and he wanted to see a few things before he settled down. It would give him something to think on and tell stories about when he got old and set in his ways. Mostly he just loved the feeling of waking up in a different place every day and seeing different things. What was wrong with that?
He was a mechanic by trade and made good money working on cars. He’d liked working on engines since he could first remember. Jared had a natural talent for looking at things and figuring out how they worked. He used to help his dad work on his old cars out in the garage or in the driveway during the nicer weather. He thought on those times with a warm feeling. Him and his dad.
His dad, Casey Ingram, was great guy and a good mechanic too, when he wasn’t drinking. When he drank, he was sunburned-rattlesnake mean and didn’t give a shit who you were. If you disagreed with him or looked at him sideways, there was trouble. Jared figured his dad had punched just about everybody he’d ever met by the time he met his end, and there was a big list of those he’d punched more than once. Jared and his mom, Kalyssa, and his kid sister, Keelee had topped that second list. Jared had learned a lot from his dad. He’d learned about philosophy and how to duck a punch and those two things, right there, had seen him through many tough moments in his life. Jared hadn’t let those punches change him too much.
Jared had learned to be philosophical about death and he took comfort in the belief that death had saved his dad and the world from a whole lot of trouble that was still coming. He tried not to think too much about his dad and his time back home, it wasn’t helpful. He didn’t like all the what-if games your head tried to play with you. Jared preferred to think about things that were yet to happen, things he had some control over. Jared had always figured that it wasn’t his dad that beat him, it was the whiskey. Still there had come a time when it all had to be stopped. That was philosophy too.
He probably should have stopped it all before he did for his mom and Keelee’s sake, but again, shoulda, woulda, coulda. It was too nice of a day to think on things like that.
He rolled down his driver’s side window and took a deep breath of that good clean desert air. This was the life. Aerosmith was on the radio and he grabbed his big stainless steel commuter cup and took a big drink of his coffee. This was really the life.
At around half past noon, he decided to pull over and get gas and go to the bathroom and since he was stopping anyway, he might as well get some lunch. He wasn’t in any particular hurry and you never know what you might find along the way. Life, after all, was a crap shoot.
This wasn’t the busiest part of the country so Jared watched the signs and pulled off at the next exit with a fuel and food sign. It was on the outskirts of a little town called Mesa Springs. It looked like maybe 150 or 200 people lived here, mostly in double-wides. Jared figured 12 of them worked at the gas station and cafe and the rest must either be retired, disabled, or they commute 80 miles a day. As he got out of his van at the gas station he looked around. There wasn’t much to look at, it was pretty flat and hot. There sure as hell weren’t any lumberjacks in town. The tallest plant life he saw wouldn’t reach to his van’s window.
He stretched and smiled to himself, this was exactly where he wanted to be right now. He filled the two tanks of his van and paid for the gas then pulled his van over to the crowded parking lot of the cafe/convenience store a half block down from the gas station. He noticed a State Patrol car parked by the edge of the lot, ready to pull out. It was a good sign if the Staties ate here, they usually knew where the good chow was.
As he walked into the cafeteria he waited by the door while two couples stood in line to pay their bills and he took the opportunity to look around. He could easily see where the locals were seated, some near the end of the counter and others in the nearby tables at the back of the room. That way they weren’t bothered by the constant coming and going of the people passing through their little world. The owners of the cafe knew that the locals’ trade was important to keep the little business afloat during the lean times. They took good care of them he was sure. The locals paid less than the tourists, and the tourists paid based on how busy it was. Jared looked at the room and it was clear to him that was the way it worked.
When Jared looked at something, like this cafe, he saw the connections and relationships that other people missed. The same went for figuring out people, he could watch people and figure things out about them. The more they did, the more he could tell. Most of the time he even saw how to use that information to make people do what he wanted.
When the couples had finished paying their bills and telling the eatery’s boss, the older lady with the big silver hair, fancy red apron and a name tag that said DOREEN and HOSTESS, how good everything was, it was his turn. Doreen closed the cash drawer, spindled the receipts and looked up at Jared smiling, and said, “Just you, hon?” as she expertly snatched a single menu from the vertical stack next to the register. He winked at her and followed her to a seat halfway down the counter.
“The counter OK?” Doreen said slowing down.
“Perfect,” he said and sat down on the rotating stool with the red vinyl top.
A thirty-something waitress with dyed red hair, a name tag that read KAREN and a forearm tattoo that read “Bob Marley Lives” poured a cup of coffee for him while he handed her the menu without looking at it and ordered a turkey club on white and a glass of milk. She made a quick note of the order and gave him a professional smile. He smiled back and asked if she could find him a local paper to look at. She winked and said, “Natch.”
Fifteen seconds later she swept by, arms loaded with full plates, and dropped off a hastily refolded newspaper that he acknowledged with a lift of his chin and a quick smile.
Jared looked over the paper, checking the front page for what was happening in the area, then back folded the paper so that the local classifieds were showing and looked though the listings for items of interest. He’d found over time that the contents of the classifieds were the fastest way to find out about a small town.
He sipped his coffee as he looked down the listings. There was an opening for a mechanic, two estate sales, baby clothes for sale, public notices of probate; a pretty average small town in the middle of nowhere with its deaths, divorces, kids growing up, lives being simplified.
His lunch came and Karen refilled his coffee while she asked if he needed anything else. He said no and she slipped the ticket under his coffee’s saucer face down with a big thanks.
He pulled the little toothpick with multicolored cellophane frill out of one side of his club sandwich and took a bite. It was good enough. The bacon was from the morning and the tomatoes were none too flavorful, but it was good enough. He took a drink of milk and looked around. The tourists were starting to finish up and leave.
The man in the gimme cap and the chain on his wallet sitting next to him, drained his coffee, stood up and said thanks to the kitchen staff through the order window and walked past him to pay his bill. Jared could see the seat on the other side of the man had a young tan guy with dark brown hair and a baby face sitting there with a backpack on the step up at his feet. A hitchhiker.
Jared took another sip of his coffee and looked at the young man who looked back. Jared smiled and looked at the backpack on the floor. “Hitching?”
“Yep,” The guy said and smiled back. Jared looked for hesitation in the guy. Not everybody was comfortable talking with strangers.
“Any luck?” Jared asked. The guy looked kind of new to things. He’d check him out a bit.
“A little more than I wanted. I made it all the way out here in three days,” the hitcher said swiveling toward Jared. Jared noted his openness. It’s like he wanted to talk. No reserve to him.
“Where from?” Jared asked with eyebrows raised, putting his coffee cup on the counter.
“Columbia Missouri,” the guy said without hesitation while maintaining eye contact. You didn’t always run into such open people on the road or anywhere else Jared thought to himself.
“On your thumb?” Jared asked, still smiling but with a confused look. He wanted to show he was impressed with the guy. Try to put the guy at ease. Just to see how he acted.
“Yeah. Surprised me too. I was looking for a little adventure and it was more like taking the bus,” the guy said with a laugh. Jared though he was either confident or innocent or both.
“Jared,” he said leaning forward and extending his right hand.
“Connor Lawson, good to meet ya,” the hitcher said and gave Jared a strong handshake.
Jared was taking all this in. The guy had given his full name when Jared had offered only his first. His handshake was strong and his hand was dry and warm. That said the kid was confident. If he was gay and trying to pick Jared up, there would be signs of nervousness like sweating hands and hesitancy. No, Jared read this Connor as straight or at least not on the make, and sure of himself and his safety. That was good.
Connor hadn’t asked for any assurances from Jared so far. That was a little odd but Jared was ready to give a little here. After all, nothing was going on.
“Yeah, I’ve done a little hitching in my time and I can’t tell you how many times I sat under overpasses waiting a day or more for a ride, and that’s when I was young and innocent looking. So I’m pretty impressed with you making, what, 1200 miles in three days. I’m not even driving that much.” Jared said with mock amazement. “Maybe you ought to buy a Lotto ticket.”
“Not my style to throw away money,” Connor said, at least not until I start making some. I’m still looking for lost change on the sidewalk,” and he laughed and took a sip of his coffee. “How ‘bout you? Where you headed?”
“No place in particular. I inherited a little money, not a lot, but it made me think, you know. So I thought I’d take a little road trip before I got old or crippled or it got to be illegal,” Jared said fixing an open honest look to his face.
“I hear ya,” Connor said. “Life can happen before you’re ready for it.”
“So, are you on summer vacation from school?” Jared glanced around at the gradual emptying of the diner.
“No, I’m graduated. End of this last May from the University of Missouri, Go Tigers!” He laughed. “Got a job waiting for me in Culver City at the end of August and thought I’d see a little of the country before they trapped me in a cubicle.”
“That’s good thinkin’. I know a lot of people who wish they’d done that.” But that wasn’t the truth. Jared didn’t know anybody who worked in an office. He knew a few that wished they could travel before they were in the slam, or dead, but nobody trapped in an office with a necktie. Sometimes, you had to schmooze. That’s what they called it.
“So, Connor. Do you need a ride? I’m not in a hurry to get to nowhere. I’m just lookin’ around.” Jared said checking his bill.
“Thanks, Jared. I’d like a ride. I can chip in for gas.”
“I won’t turn down gas money. I’m driving a one-ton van that I used for work and it is not a lightweight on the fuel. Do you drive? 'Cuz I’d kind of like to look out the window a little more.”
“Man, I love driving. I just haven’t been able to afford the gas and insurance while I was in school.” Connor said and rolled his eyes.
“Well, it looks like we’re covered then. But listen, if you get tired of me and my opinions or company, just say so. I won’t take it personally. We’re both out looking for something and it’s probably completely different. You get me?” He didn’t want to appear eager for a rider, he wanted to make Connor feel safe.
“Loud and clear. Same goes for me. You get tired of my stories or anything, just drop me off anywhere. I got nothing but time,” Connor said.
“It’s a deal,” Jared said and they shook hands again.
“Listen. I got to hit the restroom. I’ll meet you outside. You said you’re in a van?” Connor said dropping a five-dollar bill next to his plate for a tip. Jared saw it and wondered if he was that generous or just wanted Jared to think so.
“White one, big ass thing. You can’t miss it. I’ll get it started and cooling down,” That suited Jared down to the ground. He didn’t want to be seen leaving the diner with Connor for his own reasons. You never knew what people might think.
Jared fumbled at his seat for a moment while Connor paid his tab at the register. He saw that Connor paid from a money clip of bills he had in his front pocket, not with a credit card. He liked this guy more all the time.
Jared started up the van, set the air conditioner to high and picked up a few things in the van to make room for Connor to get in. Connor came out looked into the window then opened the passenger door and said, “D’you want me to drive?”
“No, I’ll take the first shift,” Jared said and then, “side door’s unlocked if you want to stow your pack back there.”
Connor closed the passenger door and slid open the side door to look into the back.
“Wow. You’re ready for a serious road trip.” Connor said looking around in the back of the spacious van.
Jared still had his built-in toolboxes and some shelves for equipment but there was also a small fridge, some deflated air mattresses in a rack, a couple folding lawn chairs, coolers, fishing equipment, camping gear including tools to cut wood, white gas stoves, lanterns. In short, you could live out of the van pretty comfortably.
“Are you car camping too?” Connor asked.
“Not really. Most nights I find a motel, but I’m ready to car camp if I feel like it or nothin’s nearby,” Jared answered.
“I tell you the truth. I was kinda looking forward to sleeping out under the stars next to a campfire myself and I’m bummed I haven’t got to yet.” Connor said.
“Well hell, you’re talking my language. Why don’t we make that happen tonight. I would dig the hell out of that. If we can find a river maybe we can catch dinner too. Otherwise, I got cans of beans and corned beef hash.” Jared sounded enthusiastic.
“Hang on a minute and I’ll go back inside and buy us a sixey of Bud to go with that fish,” Connor said with a smile on his face.
“Now you’re talkin’. Here’s a fiver, grab a bag or two of ice for the cooler would ya?” Jared said and fished out a bill out of his front pocket for Connor.
“Sure thing. Be right back.” Connor said and shoved his backpack in the van and closed door.
Jared thought he should really warn Connor about trusting strangers so much. Everything he needed was in that backpack and he’d just left it in the back of a stranger’s van and walked off to get beer and ice. Jared shook his head. Connor was old enough to know better. He may think he can read people but he needed to understand what Jared’s dad said was true. Life was a crap shoot.
He suddenly laughed out loud. Who the hell did he think he was to straighten somebody else out when it came to life? Especially a nice guy with a college education. Hey, it wasn’t any skin off his nose. Connor’d learn soon enough. Life was short and it was a crap shoot.
Jared got up and slipped between the two front bucket seats into the back of the van and slid open the side door. Then he pulled the big cooler over the open door and drained the water from the last melted ice onto the ground. He pulled out some empty plastic bags and empty wrappers and threw them away.
Connor showed back up at the door with ice and beer and tossed them into the cooler. A few moments later, the van was rolling down the street towards the short on ramp to the state highway and they were off.
Once on the highway, they rode along like they’d known each other for years. They discussed the Rolling Stones versus Aerosmith and they compared Kid Rock to Lil’ Richard. They argued about what made Zeppelin the best of blues rock and they spoke with reverence about Hendrix though they’d both been born after his death.
When they’d first started talking, they’d both tried to keep the conversation alive but after ten minutes they were defending and attacking each other’s positions about almost everything. A little while later it was clear they agreed on more things than they disagreed on.
Jared stopped talking for a while when he had the uncomfortable feeling that he’d never been this comfortable with anybody before and he didn’t know what to think about it. He pulled over to the shoulder when it was about three in the afternoon and Connor took over driving.
Jared enjoyed sitting in the passenger seat with his feet up on the dash looking out his window while they talked. He turned off the radio as the rock station they were listening to faded into the distance and they just talked about their lives.
It was an odd feeling for Jared to talk about his childhood and family. He couldn’t remember ever speaking of his life in such depth before. He felt that there was no reason to hold much back. Speaking to a stranger was easier than it had ever been to talk with his family and it had been years since he’d seen them.
Around four-thirty they saw a sign for Red Mesa River coming up and they both thought it was the chance they were hoping for. Connor pulled the van off onto a side road that was supposed to lead to a campground along the river. When they arrived at the campgrounds and saw all the RV’s and car-campers there, they agreed that they were looking for something a little more secluded and less noisy so they drove on along the road as it followed alongside the river. After about three more miles they found a flat secluded spot that had been used before as a camp.
They pulled over and parked on some high ground next to the river. Connor wandered off to find firewood while Jared pulled out some camping gear and put some rocks in a circle for a fire pit. He collected kindling and piled it on top of some crumpled paper in the fire pit, then got out the fishing gear and tossed a baited line into the river and sat down to wait.
Connor returned with the wood and put some on the unlit kindling, stacking the rest next to the pit. He then grabbed the extra pole and joined Jared down by the river to try his luck.
They fished and talked for an hour or so while they both pulled in a couple fish Jared identified as Apache Trout.
As the sun went down they cleaned their fish and went back up to the campsite and Connor started the fire while Jared assembled some cooking gear.
The dry wood caught well and burned quickly down to embers. Jared placed an old cast iron frypan on the rocks in a corner of the embers and put some oil in the pan. When it sizzled he laid the filleted fish gently into the pan and added salt and pepper.
Connor pulled a couple beers from the cooler and a few minutes later they were eating in silence as the sun set the sky ablaze and then disappeared.
It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie. The only thing missing was the horses and some saddles on the ground for them to lean back on.
They scraped their enamel plates into the embers and added a couple more pieces of wood to get rid of the leftovers of the fish and then they sat back and opened a second beer each.
The two men stretched out and sat in silence. Connor leaned against an outcropping of rock and looked into the night sky.
Jared looked into the fire and thought about the way his life had gone, what had brought him to this place. Life was a crap shoot and sometimes you win. In a way he didn’t feel good about this. He actually liked this kid, which was strange when you thought about it. This guy was going on to live a life which couldn’t be more different than Jared’s. It wasn’t like they could ever be pen pals or anything like it.
This was just another lesson in life for him. He had to admit that this would be the first time he’d felt this way.
“I’ll tell you what. You go ahead and relax and I’ll wash up the dishes so we can put them away. I don’t want to let them sit over night with that fish on them.”
“Let me help you. I don’t mind.” Connor said and started to get up.
“Sit! Tell you what. I’ll clean up tonight if you make the coffee in the morning. Deal?” Jared asked.
“Deal! But I’m getting the better end of the stick.” Connor protested.
“Tell me that in the morning,” Jared said and they both laughed.
“OK. You win,” Connor said.
“I’ll go get it done so I can do a little more fire-watching,” Jared said as he got up off the ground with an exaggerated groan. “I gotta get the soap and scrubber out of the van. You want another beer while I’m up?”
“No, I’m good. I don’t sleep well if I drink too much. Besides I gotta get rid of the two I’ve already had,” Connor said hoisting himself up off the ground.
Jared walked over and slid open up the side door of the van and turned on the interior light in the back of the van and climbed inside. He looked back out and saw Connor walk away from the campfire into the darkness to relieve himself. Jared took a deep breath and looked quietly down at the toolbox thinking. There was no reason to drag this out. He wasn’t sure what was going on in his head right now but he needed to get his shit together and get on with this.
He pulled open the bottom drawer of his tool chest and looked at the hatchet lying there. He felt the familiar rush of excitement charge down his back and the surge of strength rush into his chest. He took a deep breath and picked up the hatchet. This time he’d use the hammer side, last time he’d had to burn his new pair of jeans and shoes.
He grabbed a towel and draped it over the hatchet, turned off the light, picked up a flashlight and climbed out of the van. He’d have to wait until Connor returned to sit by the campfire. He walked back over and picked up the forks and plates and put them into the cooled frypan and took them all of towards the river as if he were going to wash them.
Jared stood off in the darkness and waited for Connor to come back to the fireside. A minute later as he watched, Connor walked back into the area lit by the fire and looked around innocently. Jared watched as the look on Connor’s face changed to a smile and he rubbed his hands together. Then Connor turned and walked toward the van and quietly slid open the side door.
So much for not wanting another beer. Mr. Self-control, my ass, Jared thought to himself and then he saw him pull his backpack and dig around in it. OK, it was something else. Maybe he took medicine or maybe he was getting some heroin out. It didn’t really matter.
There was no time like the present.
Jared walked quickly and silently back across the campsite carrying only the hatchet with the towel covering it. When he was about 12 feet behind Connor he took the towel off and dropped it.
It was then that the dying fire backlit him and his shadow crossed the door of the van alerting Connor who spun around, crouching, and Jared stopped in his tracks with a look of surprise on his face.
Connor was holding a machete in his right hand and a jacket in his left. Connor looked at Jared’s hand and seeing the hatchet, his expression softened.
He slowly stood upright and said, “You are shitting me right?”
“Great minds think alike,” Jared said.
“So what do we do now?” Connor asked.
“I know what I’m gonna do. I guess it’s up to you.” Over time, Jared had worked through most of the problems that had come up, but in all the years he’d been doing this, he’d never considered this.
“Well then we got a problem,” said Connor smiling.
“I guess it’s time to shoot some craps,” Jared said.