Sometimes I get the germ of an idea and I don't know what to do with it. There's something in it that makes me want to write about the idea, but not enough to make me want to call it a story or to want to turn it into a novel. So it was with this little bit of fiction. In my mind, I could see six people--strangers to one another--travelers who'd just come together in an otherwise lonely place to share a meal and a little conversation. And in my mind I saw one of them lift up his boot and say, "I reckon there's enough DNA evidence on these soles to convict me of murder."
And that's how this happened.
Not enough for a story, and no nagging call to become a novel. But here, nonetheless.
Not Like Kerouac. Not At All
James Robert Smith
We were a bunch of Americans in a Canadian pub just north of the US border. It was a small town, and I was thinking how weird it was that the Americans seem to gather and find one another. But I’d seen it before. We had all been sitting at separate tables nursing beers while we waited for our meals. And somehow we all just gravitated to one big table and had started jawing, talking about where we’d been and where we were headed.
There were six of us, at a table, eating shepherd’s pie, drinking beer. The only Canadian was a girl, one of The People, a Native American, an Indian, if you want to use the old term.
We all sat there together, soaking in familiar American accents: Southern, Midwestern, strictly the Bronx.
I’m a dying breed. A dying breed because my source of income is dying off. I’m a newspaperman; past middle age, approaching old age. Every day I count the blessings I have. Blessings in the form of dollars I somehow managed to accumulate in savings and a 401k that was heavily invested in government bonds. Low yield, but safe and steady.
I have to admit that between chit-chat, I was admiring the lone Canadian girl. But she was with a kid whom I almost had to like for his lean, youthful features. She was clinging to this American fellow. Despite myself, I was writing my impressions of him on an aging Corona typewriter that existed only in my head: Young, late 20s, age and experience just now beginning to line his features. ‘It’s coming, kid. It’ll make leather of your face before too much longer.’
“And what brings you here?” I finally asked the young stranger with the attractive Indian girlfriend.
The kid looked up. Then quickly he looked down at his beer. And suddenly those eyes were flicking up again, as he peered deep into my eyes, and into the faces of each of the other guests sitting at the table. And then he said it.
“I killed a guy,” he told us, having decided not to lie anymore. For a while, everyone was silent. There was shock on the faces of the others. There was horror in the eyes of the girl whose grip seemed to fade on the arm of the golden boy. “On Montana Highway 6. Back in August of 2007.” One year ago, we all thought at once.
“Who was he?” The reporter in me asked first, breaking the spell before anyone else could panic or rise from the table to flee to safer, saner quarters.
“I don’t know. I was into that whole Jack Kerouac scene. I read those silly books of his, and it seemed like a good idea. So I did the whole bit with the backpack and wandering from place to place with nowhere to go and nothing to do but move on.
“One day I was sitting at a crossroads. I needed a ride, but I wasn’t really looking all that hard for one. Walking seemed to be just barely less desirable than having to suffer through another boring conversation with another boring driver. So I was just kind of daydreaming. My pack wasn’t quite out of the road. It was sitting just barely at the curb, and I was lying up in the grass.
“And all of a sudden this big truck appears, coming around a bend in the road, going way too fast. I even rolled back a ways to make sure he wasn’t going to get me. And the driver--this trucker--actually swerved toward me. I thought for sure he was aiming for me. But it wasn’t me. He was gunning for my backpack.”
“He got it?” I asked. I noticed that the others, despite his earlier admission of a capital crime weren’t going anywhere. They were listening to the golden, fair kid.
“Damn right he did. He ran right over it. That was a nice pack. External frame. I like those best. They’re hard to find, these days, with the popularity of the internal frame. I don’t know what it is, but I always liked an aluminum frame.” He blinked, shaking his head, as if to physically rid his mind of the digression.
“So what I did was stand up and shake my fist at the guy. Hell, I wasn’t even sure he could see me. I didn’t even flip him the bird. All I was thinking was that the guy had totally trashed my backpack, and probably everything in it. I had a really nice compact canister stove in there, too. Best one I ever had.”
“What happened then,” I asked him, thinking how I might write down this particular slice of life.
“Well, apparently the guy did see me shake my fist at him. I mean…hell…what a little thing. This guy had just crushed my home and my kitchen and most of my clothes. All I did was shake my fist at him. But he saw it, for damned sure. And he hit those big brakes of his. Tires locked down. Stinking rubber everywhere.”
Everyone at the table was silent, listening. I could see that his girl had released her grip on his strong arm, and her head was no longer resting on that muscled shoulder.
“I was still just standing there, next to my crushed up backpack, and here he comes. Running. Sure as shit. The guy’s coming right at me cursing and screaming and calling me every name in the book. Hopped up on yellowjackets or something, I figure.”
He went silent, then. The others just looked at him, afraid to speak. I was aware of their eyes suddenly on me, forcing me to make the next move for them.
“Well, yes. In a manner of speaking. I don’t think he expected me to fight back. I mean, hippie kid and all that sort of thing. Probably, he figured he’d scare me or beat me up. Something like that.” He smiled, but the smile did create any warmth.
“But it was nothing like that. I’ve always had a mean streak.” He grinned at us, one and all. It was not pleasant. My impression of him as a golden boy had fled. “Basically, I beat him to death. It didn’t take long.”
“Never does,” he added. “I just picked up my pack. Couldn’t wear it anymore, but I could still carry it. Kind of like a busted up suitcase. He was lying there on the road. End of his story.”
“Are you sure you killed him?” One of the other diners had asked the question, this time. A forty-ish woman wearing clothes that didn’t suit her, trying to hold on to 30, long past the overdue date.
“Oh, he was dead all right. I bashed his skull in with my boots. These boots,” and he held one foot up. It looked like a regular boot and there was nothing there that anyone of us could see to indicate a murder.
“I reckon there’s enough DNA evidence in my soles to convict me.”
And that was when our tablemates all fled. All four of us. Me, too. I just didn’t feel like asking him any more questions. I didn’t want to know if he was pulling our legs or was on the level. I was tired, thinking of the 401k and the comfortable sum I’d managed to salt away over thirty years of newspaper work. Hell…who cared about one more murder, anyway?
I got up without saying too much more and went to my room, which was in the little hotel about 100 yards down from the diner. The others fled to their cars and vanished into the whole wide world. I never saw any of them again, and likely never will. None of them, apparently, had called the police, for I never saw anyone fitting such a description arriving on the scene to make an arrest. And I did keep an eye on the diner from the vantage point of my room. I peered out through a little space in the heavy curtains on the big plate glass window beside the door.
About two hours later, I saw the girl and the young fellow arguing. They were standing in the gravel parking lot in front of the diner. The young killer was mainly silent and his voice was never raised. But they were obviously at odds. After some time, she used an old-fashioned payphone on the side of the diner building to call someone. It didn’t take long, but another man, I’d guess her father, arrived and took her away. At least, I’ve always liked to think it was her father. He seemed to be an Indian, like her, and far too old to be a boyfriend or a brother.
For a second or two the kid looked almost like he was pleading, but the girl climbed into a pickup truck with the Indian and they drove off, leaving the kid. I watched him for a while. He put a pack on his back—it was an internal frame type, so I suppose he was right about having a hard time finding a good external frame pack. And he wandered off down the road, his thumb out as he disappeared into the distance and the woods closing in around it.
Much later, back in the States, the reporter in me decided to look things up, to check out the boy’s story. Sure enough, a trucker was killed on the stretch of road he mentioned. Timeline was right, too. No, no one was ever convicted of the killing. Could be the boy heard about it and made up the confession to shock people, or to chase off a girl he didn’t want to marry.
Who knows? I like to think he didn't do it.. But I'm betting he was telling the truth. I'm betting that little girl who had been clinging to his arm with such enthusiasm figured the same.