Shotgun shells rolled on the floorboard of Tarot’s pick-up, clanking across the bare metal as he navigated sharp curves. The trip up the mountain hadn’t been so bad. The trip down threatened to pull the axle apart. He’d bought the old truck from a man outside of Tempe, AZ. The seller’s ad was forthright with the facts: ’92 Ford flare-side F-150, 195k/m, rough exterior, worn interior, radio, rowdy engine, $450obo. It had a big silver toolbox stretched under the back window. The carpet was gone, and the sun-chipped paint job had begun to rust, but it came with a gun rack. After his last bit of bad luck, he felt better having his shotgun close at hand. He was thirty years older than the truck and in just as bad shape. They fit, the truck and him.
Tarot was finally off the mountain, heading back to Phoenix, where his car had been stolen, but the ocean waited, hidden by desert and rock. He missed water. Growing-up surrounded by swamp and marsh affects a man. Solid ground feels false, like a lie people tell themselves about stability. His momma had told him that when he was a boy. “Nothin’s fer sure,” she’d said, “not the ground‘ er the sky.”
‘Scuse me,” Tarot said, pursing his lips.
Weaving his fingers up through his grey beard, spotted brown and red, Tarot scratched his chin. It started itching that morning, and he’d been trying to ignore his mother’s words, “Stranger’s comin’.” It wasn’t a sign like his momma would have insisted. Reaching into the inside pocket of his jacket, he pulled out a bottle of Tabasco. Eyes still on the road, he stuck out his tongue and swallowed a few shakes from the bottle. The itch persisted.
Tarot let out a long, guttural sigh, and saw a curve approaching. Rusty-orange hills blocked whatever was around the bend. Yellow dashes became solid lines as the truck lurched around the curve. He wiped at the wetness under his eyes and saw him down the road. Despite a dark blond ponytail, Tarot could tell it was a him. The stride was strong and wide. The hitcher was wearing a bulky black coat, the leather worn slick. He had a guitar case hanging diagonally across his back, mud caked the calves of his jeans.
He kept his bearing as Tarot drove closer, the hitcher’s thumb never soliciting for a ride. His face appeared in the passenger side mirror. He was young. The kid smiled, nodded, and hefted a duffle bag up his shoulder.
His eyes set on the image in the mirror, Tarot said, “He might be right.”
The hitcher jogged to the truck. Tarot motioned for him to open the door. With some resistance from the door, he complied but didn’t get in. Leaning into the cab with one hand on the jamb, he smiled. The sun caught his blue eyes and bright teeth. The duffle bag looked new, but his clothes were worn, the silkscreen mummy on his red t-shirt faded and cracked. They were both silent. The boy’s eyes circled from the gun rack to the mixed trash and shells on the floor, then back to the gun. Tarot could see him working things over, hesitation, not fear, in the kid’s stance.
“Where ya headed?” Tarot said.
“The coast,” he said, looking at Tarot. “Or as far as you can take me.”
Tarot nodded down the road. “I’m making my way there, too. Passing through Phoenix on to L.A.” He turned back to the kid, softening his eyes and smiling as best he could. The kid’s eyes were moving over the floorboard, again. “You can ride along, you care to.”
“Yeah, I’ll ride as far as you’ll go.” He hung his head and settled his gaze on the seat.
“Something a matter?”
“It’s just,” the kid said and paused. He raised his eyebrows and looked up, as though pleading. “I don’t have any money.”
“I see,” Tarot said, his belly burning, and he had to look away from the kid’s Beach Boy eyes. “Look here. I didn’t stop to pick ya up cause I’m a taxi service. Put yer shit in the back and climb in.”
Tarot kept his eyes on the road and let the kid throw what was weighing him down in the bed of the truck. Back at the open door, the kid sat on the edge of the seat and kicked his boots against the step.
“Hell,” Tarot said, almost cheery, “don’t worry bout that.”
The hitcher climbed in, the creaking door pulling him as much as he pulled it.
“I’ll clean it up next stop for gas. Don’t worry about it, kid,” Tarot said, and patted the side of the guy’s knee.
“No problem, old man,” the kid said, shifting his leg.
“Fair enough. My name’s Tarot,” he said, pulling the bottle from his jacket, “like the gypsy card.” He took a drink of Tabasco. The kid watched and waited for Tarot to stop smacking his lips.
“I’m Kyle,” he said and extended his right hand. “Kyle Dalton.”
“Nice to meet you, Kyle,” Tarot said, shaking the kid’s hand. It was smooth, but bigger than Tarot’s. “You mind wearing your seatbelt?”
Kyle looked about him. “I would, but I can’t find the latch.”
“Probably tucked into the seat.”
Tarot’s hand disappeared between the cushions. With his eyes still on the road, his fingers searched from side to side. As he pulled the buckle out, the back of his hand brushed Kyle’s ass. The pliant, rough texture of the denim crept up his knuckles, stimulating the hair on his arm.
‘Scuse me,” Tarot said, pursing his lips.
Kyle waited for Tarot to let go of the buckle before stretching the belt across his chest to fasten it. He sat-up straight, arms stiff, and gripped his knees. Tarot looked over, and Kyle watched him from the corner of his eye.
“Where ya from?”
“My parents are waiting for me in San Diego.”
“That’s not too far from where I’m going,” Tarot said. “You’ll be there tomorrow, now I picked you up.”
“Yeah,” Kyle said, and leaned against the door.
“I’m from Louisiana. I travel playing at casinos. Played Mazatzal Casino in Payson last night. Got a one-man band. Call myself Up Around The Bend,” Tarot said and waited. “Know why?”
He could hardly see Kyle’s head shaking.
“I cover Creedence,” Tarot said, smiling. He sang, “Bring a song and a smile for the banjo/Better get while the gettin’s good/Hitch a ride to the end of the highway/Where the neons turn to wood.” He finished and pumped the gas pedal.The engine croaked and jerked Kyle’s head. He placed his hand on the seat close to his leg and pushed away from Tarot.
“Song’s kinda fittin’, huh?” Tarot said.
“Didn’t you hear the lyrics? Hitch a ride?”
“Right,” Kyle said, “I got it.” He was rigid. Even the leather of his jacket seemed tense.
They rode on in silence. The sun was just above the mountains, shining the day’s last light through the windshield. Tarot’s thumbs twitched. It was a long trip to California. He didn’t want to lose his company, but he knew he’d lost ground with the boy. They were on the 101, going around Phoenix. Tarot tried, again.
“I saw yer guitar. You play?”
“Kinda,” Kyle said, and looked out the window. He was muttering to himself.
“Now, listen,” Tarot said, as though he were scolding a child. Weary of making eye contact, he kept his face forward. “I wasn’t trying to touch you. It was an accident.”
He could feel Kyle’s blue eyes burning white heat into his chest. “If you’re uncomfortable I’ll letcha out. Don’t want no silent passenger.”
Kyle let out a breath. “Sorry, I’ve had a couple bad pick-ups.” Twisting to look at the back window, he said, “Had to put some guys in their place.”
“Yeah,” Tarot said, nodding, but something kept the burn in his chest. “I know what ya mean.”
The folds of Kyle’s jacket softened as he relaxed his arms and slouched his shoulders. “Driver’s expect something for the ride, y’ know?” he said. “You can’t trust some people.”
“I know what ya mean. That’s what the shells are for. Some kid robbed me. Stole my last truck while I was paying for gas.”
“That’s shitty,” Kyle said, shaking his head as he spoke. “Why would someone want this?”
“Well, it wasn’t this truck,” he said. “I didn’t pay much for this heap. Four hundred bucks, and it came with the gun rack.”
“The engine’s loud. But I guess it has some character. A lot of stories are in a truck like this.”
“How’s that?” Tarot said.
“I just mean,” Kyle said and put his hand on the dash. “I bet it’s seen some things.”
Tarot’s eyes followed Kyle’s fingers as they stroked the rough plastic. “Don’t go running off with it, now.”
“I’m no thief,” Kyle said.
“Nah, I had a good feeling about you. Them shells and the gun are just for show. Call it intimidation.”
Kyle looked between his feet. “It worked. I almost didn’t get in when I got a good look at you.”
Tarot’s heat extinguished and his lips cemented.
They’d been driving an hour, and the atmosphere finally loosened. It was getting near dark. Tarot figured they’d have to share a motel room for the night. There were a few things he wanted to get first. “Mind if we stop?”
“Sure,” Kyle said and looked out the back window again.
On the west side of Phoenix they found a quick stop grocery.
“You mind coming in?” Tarot said.
“Yeah, I could use something to drink.” He bent forward, and Tarot thought he was tying his shoes.
Inside, Tarot got hair conditioner, deodorant, and some baby oil. Before checking out he grabbed a bag of jerky and a bottle of Boone’s. At the counter he began to think better about buying the oil. Next in line, he thought about dropping the bottle on the candy shelf in front of him. Arms dangling at his sides, he sidled up close to the shelf and tried to maneuver the bottle between the racks. Over his shoulder he saw an old lady scowling at him, and Kyle standing right behind her. His heart growled like his truck’s engine.
He turned and pulled his shoulders back. “Problem?” he said to the old lady.
She took a step away, her scowl softening. Tarot glanced at Kyle and narrowed his brow. The clerk called for next in line. His eyes back on the old lady, Tarot moseyed to the register. He threw the bag of jerky on the counter and slammed the bottles down.
“Yeah I need this, and give me a fucking tittie magazine.” He nodded at Kyle, a half smirk on his face.
The old man frowned, his white beard clean and shaped. “No need for the language, sir.”
“Just get me a damn porn mag so I can git back on the road.”
“Which one would you like?”
“That Leather Bitch’ll do,” Tarot said, scratching his scraggly beard.
The man grabbed a magazine with all but the title hidden behind black cellophane. “This one?” the man said.
Without looking, Tarot said, “Yep.”
As the man rang the items, Tarot glanced at the old lady then at Kyle. He was looking away into the store. His arms were crossed; one hand with a bottle of water tucked under one arm and the other wrapped around his bicep, fingers drumming a quick rhythm on his jacket sleeve. Tarot paid for his things and grabbed the bags from the man. Before leaving the counter Tarot smiled at the clerk then the old lady.
Outside he took a drink from his Tabasco and popped the lid of the truck’s toolbox. He put the conditioner and baby oil in his travel bag, but kept the jerky, Boone’s and magazine for the ride. As he closed the lid and locked it, he studied Kyle’s belongings in the back. Moving the duffel bag to face him, Tarot saw the initials DVL monogrammed in red across the front. “Kyle Dalton?” he said, and scratched his beard. He heard the doors of the store slide open, and Kyle walked into the fading daylight. His passenger was taller than he first estimated, and had Tarot by at least forty pounds of muscle. Kyle stopped, his eyes skipping over Tarot into the bed of the truck.
“Ready to git back on the road?”
Kyle moved slowly to the other side of the truck. Tarot saw him peer into the back before getting in. Tarot leaned into the truck and set the jerky and magazine on the middle of the bench seat. His forehead burned, and he fought the urge to look at Kyle’s bags again. Kyle watched through the cab, his eyes resting on the shotgun, and then climbed in.
“Got some Strawberry Hill and some jerky if you want. And tits to look at if you get bored,” Tarot said, starting the truck.
Kyle grunted thanks and found the buckle to his belt without Tarot’s help.
Back on the road Tarot let the growling engine speak for his state. The light of the sun behind the mountains and a half moon shining right above them illuminated the cab with uncanny light. Tarot’s brain cranked with the last thing Kyle had said before they stopped at the store. It ate at him.
“You said you had trouble before. Said you had your doubts. Why’d you ride along?”
“You were the first to stop.”
Tarot chewed on Kyle’s answer like a turkey burger, shaped the right way, but unsatisfying. He was quiet a few miles, then said, “Well, I stopped because of superstition.”
“Is that why your name’s Tarot? You believe in that kind of thing?”
“Sometimes I believe. But that’s not why my name’s Tarot. Momma had a book she found by a man named Thoreau. She liked the way the name looked and sounded. When they asked her what name she wanted on my birth certificate, she pronounced it ‘Tarot.’ And that’s what they wrote.”
“Yep, afraid so,” Tarot said. The sun was gone, and the moon glossed the desert in an eerie brownish blue. He pulled a knob and lit-up the road.
“The back of my head was itching,” Kyle said.
“That’s why I got in. The back of my head was itching before you drove by,” Kyle said and pointed to the spot near the beginning of his ponytail.
Tarot looked and, for the first time, noticed a horned figure tattooed on Kyle’s neck. He couldn’t quite make it out in the half dark of the cab. Kyle turned and the figure slipped beneath his collar. Tarot’s head floated, lost in scenarios too complicated for him to pursue.
“That sounds like an LA belief,” Tarot said. He looked at his passenger. His face was lit by moonlight and the dull glow of the instrument panel. Tiny craters and crevices marked his face. He looked older than Tarot originally guessed. “Your family from Long Beach?”
Kyle looked away and muttered to himself. “San Diego!” he said. “I told you they were waiting in San Diego.”
Tarot thought about calling him David, or Daniel to see if he answered. He didn’t think he was scared of the kid, but knew he was lying. “So where’d you get your name?”
“What’s it matter?”
“What’s that old saying? Got to know where you’re from to know where you’re going.”
Kyle grunted. “What’s that old saying? Talk of the devil and he’s bound to appear.”
Tarot took the words like a punch. Kyle had turned away again. The very tip of his tattoo peeked above the collar of his jacket. Tarot stiffened from his shoulders to his jeans. He considered stopping. He’d tell the kid to get out if he wanted to be so defensive, but the thought of the kid out here in the dark would keep him awake. He guessed there were some things people just didn’t want to share. Talking about yourself lost you control. And the kid wasn’t about give up any of that.
Tarot’s foot felt weighty on the pedal, and the engine was in a continuous snarl. He opened one of the bags of jerky, chose a big piece to chew on as he drove, and offered the bag to Kyle.
“Like a piece?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“There’s porn in there if you’re bored.”
“Yeah, you said,” Kyle said. Tarot heard the shopping bag rustle. He clicked on the overhead light. Kyle ripped the plastic covering off the magazine. He was quiet. Tarot thought he made the right decision getting the magazine, but Kyle held it out towards him and said, “What the hell’s this?’
“Too freaky for ya?” Tarot said and smiled as he turned his head. With a title like Leather Bitch he expected it to be a bit raunchy, maybe a little too much for the kid’s taste, but there were two men on the cover wearing black leather straps across their chests. One was bent over in front of the other, his expression a mixture of pleasure and pain.
“Th-that’s not what I wanted,” Tarot said, his head jerking back and forth from the road to the magazine to Kyle’s narrowed eyes. “You heard me ask for a fucking tittie magazine, didn’t ya?” Kyle didn’t move, just held the magazine like a shield. Tarot rolled down his window, snatched the gay porn from Kyle’s hands, and threw it onto the road.
Their silence became an uneasy quiet. Even the gurgling engine had lost its gusto. Tarot felt trapped in his own truck. The darkness pressed in on him. That magazine was supposed to get the boy on his side. Ease him. Maybe get him a little excited. The image of the two men on the cover came to life in Tarot’s thoughts. Kyle’s face appeared on the one bent over. Shaking his head, he cursed the old man at the store again and took another swig from his bottle.
Kyle crossed his arms and leaned with his back against the door. “What’s with the hot sauce?”
Blood running fast, his palms slipped on the steering wheel. Tarot thought about giving him a “Go fuck yourself” kind of answer.
“Out in the woods we didn’t have much use for soap. When momma wanted to correct us for cussin’ she coated our tongues with Tabasco. Us kids just got the taste for it. Keeps me awake when I’m drivin’.”
Tarot waited, but Kyle kept quiet. It was as though he hadn’t even heard the story. Tarot’s chest was growing tight, and his veins burned like they had vinegar in them. He tried not to be angry, but he wanted more from the kid.
“Well?” Tarot said.
“Well what?” Kyle said, his breath fogging the window.
“What ya think, kid?”
“What do I think about what? Your Pavlovian hot sauce addiction?”
“What’s that mean, kid?”
“Kid?” Kyle said the word like a growl. “How old do you think I am?”
“Well you’re actin’ like a stubborn teenager. But if I had to guess, twenty-two, twenty-five, tops.”
“I’m not a damned kid. I’m thirty-one.”
Hills had given way to open desert. The road, weaving out in front of them, reflected light from the lopsided moon. Tarot could see a cluster of yellow lights in the dark landscape. The gas gauge was under half-full. Tarot thought maybe he could get the kid to pay while he pumped. Then leave him there.
“Pavlov was a scientist,” Kyle said, staring at Tarot. “A psychologist. He teaches these dogs to expect their food every time a bell rings.” He paused. Tarot glanced at him. The hitcher’s eyes were shadowed and Tarot thought he saw him snarling. “So these dogs know food is coming when they hear the bell. They get all excited and start drooling. One day Pavlov rings the bell but doesn’t give the dogs any food. He can see they are waiting for it, mouths all sloppy and wet. He keeps doing it, day after day, and the dogs keep drooling for the food that wouldn’t come.” He paused. “Pavlov called it conditioning.”
Tarot was quiet, kept looking at the lights down the road. “Did he ever feed the dogs?”
“What do you mean?”
“Pavlov, did he feed the dogs, or just keep ringin’ the bell ‘til they starved?”
“Maybe. Probably not. That’s not the point.”
“I got the point! You’re saying my momma conditioned me.”
“A trained dog.”
“I’m no trained dog. I just like the Tabasco.”
“Are you sure you don’t punish yourself? Maybe you said something you shouldn’t. Did you disrespect your momma? Think dirty thoughts about a man?” He seemed to be getting excited, his palms running up and down his jeans.
“I ain’t gay,” Tarot said. He felt all the strength drain from his limbs. “I just like the taste.”
Kyle wiped his face with both hands, rubbed them down his legs to his knees, and gripped the loose denim. “You know what I would have done if I was one of those dogs?” he said.
“Dogs?” Tarot said, confused. Then, remembering, he said, “What would you do?”
“Would have done. I’m no trained dog, like you.” Kyle laughed. Then, his voice got smooth, like he was warning Tarot. “I would have gotten a hold on old Pavlov and taught him a lesson. I would have shown him I was hungry, and dinnertime came, bell or no bell.”
Tarot caught him looking at the back window, again. Estuaries of sweat sprouted from his palms and ran down his arms. The lights seemed to be keeping their distance. A pistol would have been a better choice. Without thinking about it, he gripped his bottle by the neck and jerked it out.
“Wanna try some?”
Kyle laughed. It was a good-natured laugh. Not like when he had mocked Tarot. “No, you can’t tame me,” he said, continuing to laugh. Tarot thought for a second he had worried for nothing. Kyle stopped laughing. “A wolf doesn’t need a dinner bell. Feeding time comes when I have the opportunity. When I say so.”
The lights were getting closer, and at last Tarot could make out the gas station’s overhang with the pumps underneath. They rode on in silence. Tarot thought his heart might pop out between his ribs. His neck was stiff, his breathing rigid, his eyes intent on the station. “I need some gas,” he said, his foot on the break.
Tarot stopped with the passenger side close to the pump. Except for the man behind the counter, they were the only people around. He killed the engine and pushed the headlight knob into the dash. They watched each other. Tarot waited for his passenger to make his move.
“Would you mind paying while I pump?” Tarot asked.
“I don’t have any money,” Kyle said, tucking his chin, “remember?”
Tarot laughed. “Of course,” he said, beginning to stutter again. “I was going to give you the money. I’m going to give you the money.”
“It’s the least I can do for the ride.”
“Yeah,” Tarot said and nodded.
He turned, his body moving in jerky motions. He listened for Kyle to move. With the handle in his fist, he pulled it and nudged the door. Tarot paused for a beat of his racing heart and heard Kyle getting out. Tarot stepped with unease onto the ground. He hadn’t stood in two hours. His knees threatened to give, but he bucked and stood-up straight. As he rounded the back of the truck, he eyed Kyle’s bags. Between the truck and the pump the two men met face to face. Tarot pulled his wallet from his back pocket, opened it, and gave Kyle three twenties.
“That should do it,” he said, finally looking up at his passenger.
Kyle’s lips scrunched to one side as though thinking over the money. His eyes were dead still on Tarot’s. After a moment he said, “Yeah, that should do it.”
“All right,” Tarot said, half nodding, half cowering.
“Need anything?” Kyle asked as he walked towards the store.
“Nope, I’ll be okay.”
Tarot watched Kyle’s long strides up to the glass doors. He turned to the truck and opened the gas tank. A bell rang behind him, and his whole body shook. He turned to the pump. Kyle was at the counter, his back to Tarot. In one motion, Tarot swung around, grabbed the handles of the two bags and put them on the ground at his feet. Kyle still at the register, Tarot darted to the driver’s side. The engine cranked, coughed, and growled. He yanked the stick into first and sped onto the empty highway.
The back of his hand tickled with the memory of denim. Kyle’s ass. An hour passed before his breathing evened and his fingers eased off the steering wheel. He glanced at the rearview. It was black. A quarter tank wasn’t going to get him far enough away. Tarot took a drink from his Tabasco. It tasted foul. He rolled down the window and threw it into the dark. The road curved, Tarot didn’t hear any shotgun shells roll across the floorboard.