The prince of lies

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The prince of lies

I was on my back on the floor of an empty low-walled gondola car, watching the last soft traces of pink bleed from the sky. Air hoses between the railroad cars made an intermittent hiss. That sound, and this brown railcar in orange sunlight, and the color blue, and the noise from eighteen-wheelers speeding past on the nearby road all came together in that moment, everything in the world was strange and beautiful to me, and I marveled at what made it all move. Then it got dark, and the train hadn’t moved for a long time, so I put on my frame-pack, went to the forward coupling and climbed down out of the car. Lugging my pack around a huge railroad yard in the dead of night didn’t seem like a bright idea, so I walked along a road on the edge of the yard, watching little red lights bob around in the darkness a few dozen yards away, flashlights in the hands of invisible railroad workers moving around to make up a train.

I found a little park, unrolled my sleeping bag, took off my hiking boots and nested them together, ankle to toe; that was my pillow. It was a fine warm night. Light from the street came through a thin canopy of leaves. At one point I was almost asleep when I realized a little rock was jabbing my back; it would fuck me up by morning so I got up and dug it out with my buck knife and threw it off in the bushes. I was wide awake again, the park awash with churning sounds of freight trains moving on the other side of the road, and I could hear a sad flute-note in the short bursts of their diesel horns, I was close enough to feel them throbbing as they passed; I loved their inky smell and the way they stirred the air. A sweet paralysis seeped through my limbs, everything went black, and still I heard the dark melodies of freight trains, moving all around me.

Before sunrise I packed up my gear and snuck back into the yard. After roaming around awhile I climbed over couplings between cars and hiked in the narrow space between two long rows of sealed boxcars. I hoped the cars to my left were on a made up train, since the locomotive units were humming and the lead ones pointed north. I came out somewhere near the south end of the yard, and the first daylight was blinding metallic light flaring across a big open area with a lot of rows of empty tracks. Thirty yards away a Southern Pacific worker with a walkie-talkie stood watching me. He was the only person around, so I walked toward him and pumped my thumb over my shoulder.

“Do they leave soon?"

“Who wants to know?”

I shrugged, “Just curious!” shifting my pack around a bit and turning on the boyish charm.

He squinted and frowned and looked at me for a long, long time. Then he tilted his baseball cap back a little and asked, “Where you headed?"

"Redding, or Red Bluff.”

“Going to Lassen?”

I said yeah. “Then I’m gonna climb Shasta, and maybe Mount Adams in Washington, too.” He was a big muscular working class guy with a big red handlebar mustache, and the climbing-thing was supposed to impress him, but there had been this earnest-little-kid sound in my voice, and suddenly I felt all embarrassed and awkward, like I didn’t really fit in my own body.

He spoke quietly into the walkie-talkie. After a moment it gave back a squawky voice and numbers. He paused.

"There's a train leaving on track number eighty for Dunsmuir and K- Falls." He gestured with the antenna to the tracks at his feet. "That's track seventy-four.” He wagged the antenna to the left. “Count your way over there to track eighty and find an empty. Get in. Stay out of sight. Then wait. It might leave in fifteen minutes, or an hour, or five hours. There's no way to tell. But that's your ride. You ever ride the rails before?"

"Yesterday was the first time."

"It’s a great way to travel."

"I like it so far."

"A few months ago some young guy got run over and I had to go down in the dark with a flashlight and look for the pieces. It was one hell of a mess! Don’t make me have to do that again! And there’s a bull in the yard, if he sees you he’ll cite you and run your ass out of here."

I thanked him and went where he’d pointed and after a while found an empty boxcar with an open right side door. I lifted my pack up to the floor of the car, shoved it in, then dragged my finger across the soot on the side of the car:

And I paused and stepped back. Real hobos have signatures, not just a name, either, but who they are, where they are from, like this one, ‘Herby,’ a drawing of a man under a sombrero and a serape asleep at the base of a palm tree. I’d seen that on the sides of car-carriers and grainers everywhere. So I thought about this girl, and I wanted to write her name, hoping she would see it someday: “SEAN STILL LOVES ANNIE --ALWAYS!” but that was an incredibly stupid idea, so then I was going to write the names of cool bands I’d seen at Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, the Mutants or Negative Trend, or Flipper; the sign of the fish, with dead Xss for eyes. Or something ironic and obvious like Holidays in the Sun.

Instead I spit on my fingers and smeared a somewhat fucked-up looking silhouette of a black cat arching its back, and below that: I.W.W!

Abolish The Wages System! We Never Forget! --

-- and climbed into my boxcar, the boxcar that would carry me away to the woods.

I dragged my pack into the shadows at the back, unrolled the foam pad and spread the sleeping bag over me. All the exhaustion from the road was in me, and lying there felt so good, my body floated away into soft, rich, liquid sleep -- the train lurched and pitched me in the air and I bashed my face on the metal edge of the boxcar door, shattering my teeth, I was chewing splinters like florescent light bulb glass, shredding my gums, blood flooded my windpipe, I spat chunks of wet purple tissue --

I sat up, breathing fast, dopey with sleep in the hot thick air. It was too hot to move. After a while I lay down again. I closed my eyes, taking in the big silence around me, getting away from the fear. I cleaned the black soot off my glasses with a clean spot on my T-shirt. Later I draped an arm over my eyes and felt my train slowly lurch into motion as I drifted back to sleep for real.

Later I sat against the wall, behind the open boxcar doorway, rolling slowly north. On curving stretches of track I could see the locomotive units in the far distance, across vast yellow fields, under a blank blue sky, leading the bending black band of my train. I got out my camera and took some pictures.

The train ran past clusters of small wild trees and junked cars nursing on small houses, and I thought I’d have to look at shitloads of yellow ribbons and “FREE THE HOSTAGES!” signs and US flags as big as Chevy Novas, but instead it just said ‘Marysville Hardware’ on a shingle roof and I don’t know why but that made me feel good and I smiled and waved, although there wasn’t anybody there to wave back. All of this was new to me now, the train ride, a new way that I could see the world; it grew on me that freighthopping was gonna be all about the ride itself and not for the point at the end of the ride. Hours drifted by, and I got antsy and then more antsy and then riding in this boxcar started to feel like going on Greyhound only with more leg room. I had stuff to read with me to fill up my time, a copy of “The Devils,” but I was too lazy and impatient to crack it open, so I went back to the experience of the gondola of yesterday, the first day of my first freight train ride, lying with my head against my backpack on the metal floor of the car, trying to hide from the train crew, everything around me covered with black soot and cinders and little twisted wires and metal debris. When the train didn’t move I baked in the sun, and when it finally did move I froze in a jet of ice-cold wind and tried in vain to use my pack as a windbreak, lying on my stomach spread-eagle on the grimy floor of the car. It wasn’t working so I gave up and stood up in the wind, gulping cold air, pinning my glasses to my nose to keep them from flying away. We rolled through an intersection, the perpendicular auto traffic on a four lane road blocked by a crossing gate, and a blue Ford pick-up with a camper shell was at the front of the line, with a man behind the wheel and a woman at the passenger side and two little kids between them, the man mouthing the words -- “look at the boy on the train!” -- pointing to me and we all waved as the loud bell and flashing red lights of the crossing gate whipped past my face, the sound Doppler-shifting away

with the little family. It made me feel some strange small sadness that I couldn’t understand. Or maybe I did understand it and I wanted to pretend that I didn’t. This boxcar was a nicer ride than an open-ended low walled gondola car, but with the wind blowing fast through the open side door it was getting hot, and I got dopey and slow with the heat, and I drifted off to a half-asleep state and saw weird images from dishwasher gigs back in Berkeley and the faces of career restaurant managers that I’d toiled and suffered under -- brrrrrrr! After work I’d drink bad coffee all night at the House of Pancakes. Before dawn I’d climb into my sleeping bag with a stench of fried potatoes and industrial detergent on my body, the front thighs of my blue jeans clinging damp to my legs. I saw all the small details of places I’d camped in the south campus area of Berkeley, one sweet secluded little alley in particular, and then before that on an uncomfortable small hill in Ravenna Park in Seattle’s U district, and then all the last summer beside freeways and state highways, and in vacant lots, and on

rooftops, and in construction sites, and in one special cluster of bushes in Vancouver B.C.’s Stanley Park.

The train flowed past crosshatching rows of trees in orchards, and the sky turned a luminous gray. I watched the ground flow beneath me, the boxcar flying over gravel and hard dry soil, then across a bridge over stagnant green water and over dry ground again. I closed my eyes for a long time, gently banging the back of my head against the boxcar wall, then watched the ground beneath me, and it’s movement was smooth and strange, like I was sailing over a shallow and infinitely clear pool of water, and I dwelled on all I’d hoped to find and what I’d found instead. Annie Engi was from Davos, Switzerland, and she could speak German, French, English and something I’d never heard of before called Romansh. She had, and still has, wherever she may be now, big brown eyes and long brown hair and a round pretty face, and she said, Ja! Ja! Ja! when she was happy. She kept a little bag of dried apples and a bag of carrots and a jar of ‘Jif’ peanut butter outside the window of her room in the deep shade of the narrow space between the residential hotel and whatever building it was next door. We used to eat dinner with the real bums at the quarter-meal up the hill at the Lutheran Church, and I imagined her kisses again and the taste of Drum roll- your-owns on her mouth. Others might think that’s a big turn-off, but not me; my few happy memories were mostly made up of the magic in women’s kisses and the few I’d been with so far were smokers, and I did not mind that at all. I saw me holding her, holding her little round milk-white body safe in my skinny arms as we lay together under my sleeping bag on the metal floor of what could have been our boxcar and its walls now became the same luminous lime green as the ceiling and walls of Annie Engi’s hotel room --

I woke up and came out of it, the sun was out again and the train was rolling through a big rural town. I spread out my road map and put my compass on top of the map. From the position of a big white peak on the other side of a line of hills to the east that peak had to be Mount Lassen, so this town was Redding, at the north end of the Sacramento Valley.

The train passed vast lumberyards piled high with dead trees, lost speed as it entered a railroad yard and accelerated again at the end of the yard. In a sudden big panic I put away all my stuff. I was going to get off this train in Redding whether it stopped or not. My only chance for a ride to Lassen Park would be east out of Redding, and those chances would fall with the sun and I didn’t want to get stuck in a big redneck town after dark. I dragged my pack to the doorway and crouched beside it and looked up and down the tracks. No other trains were coming. I slid the pack out the door and tried to hold it by the bottom of the frame but it was heavy with my gear and slipped out of my hand quickly, it struck the rocks of the railbed, made a loud thump-bang noise and cartwheeled end over end as if trying to pursue the train. It receded fast from sight. This train was moving a fuck of a lot faster than I'd thought. I put my heels on a metal slat that ran along the outside of the doorway. I had to jump. I had to jump right now. I was breathing fast. I looked again up and down the next row of tracks, I shouted "Do it now!"

And I was airborne. I was going to land running in the same direction as the train, and my feet touched the smooth rocks of the railbed, and I was on my feet, running beside the train. Then everything was suddenly silent, and I wasn’t moving, nothing in the world around me moved, not the train or me, and for a strange, timeless moment I wasn't in contact with the train or the railbed or anything else. It was just like the time I almost drowned when I was five, for the second time I was in this silent, motionless world, and then everything was moving fast, a crushing massive blow tore through my chest and limbs -- I couldn’t breathe. I was lying face down on the rocks with the train rushing above me to the left, I tasted blood, I thought I’d been hit or cut by the train.

Everything was turning gray around me, then my lungs shot out the rank air and pulled in breath again and I got up on my knees, breathing fast and deep, so grateful for this simple thing.

I took my hands away from my elbows. The khaki cloth was torn and wet with blood. The skin on my palms was raw and peppered with small gravel.

My glasses were gone. I crawled around the railbed and found them yards away from where I'd landed, all bent out of shape, the plastic lenses scuffed with white claw marks. I put them on. Now the train was moving very slow. I watched it come to a halt with a metallic banging noise and I started crying like a baby.

Behind me I heard a crunching sound of footsteps approaching on the railbed. I crawled around on bleeding hands and knees, pushed myself into a crouching position and pretended I was ready to lunge.

A dirty white tramp in a brown uniform shirt and pants was walking up the tracks, carrying a bedroll.

He stopped and said, "You jumped off the train."

I was still catching my breath, holding my glasses in place, looking up at him, taking him in: the dirt on his cheeks and his ragged brown beard and the new lumberjack boots on his feet. He carried a bedroll tied tight with plastic twine. A length of leather belt looped around the twine made a suitcase handle.

He had a plastic gallon jug with water sloshing around in it tied at its handle to the bedroll. The tramp stood there for some moments, watching me without expression. Then he went away without saying more, moving diagonally across the rows of empty tracks toward the far side of the yard.

A metallic crashing sound traveled car by car down the train, jerking it into forward motion. I stood up slowly and limped down the railbed to get my pack, a little disoriented with the big railcars moving in the opposite direction a few feet away. I dried my face on my sleeve and picked little rocks out of the red jelly in my palms. Stupidly I wondered why I didn't have anyone who cared about me to keep me from jumping off the train. I looked for someone else to blame it on.

I pulled the pack upright and slapped the dirt off it. The bar at the top of the frame was staved in. A clevis pin was busted off the bottom of the frame.

When I lifted the pack I felt a dull stony pain in the small of my back and almost fell over putting my arm in its strap.

I limped up an embankment and across a street to a convenience store.

The clerk had a look on his face that I had never seen before, but he didn’t treat me like a dirtbag and let me wash off at a metal sink in the back of the store, in a utility room where they kept mops and brooms and greasy plastic buckets. I scrapped the dirt out of my cuts and scrubbed my face, I took off my boots and socks and climbed up on to the sink to wash my feet and knees. It was in the act of washing myself that I was struck by the full gravity of what I'd done. I dried off with my T-shirt, put my boots back on and went outside. I let my pack fall down on the sidewalk and went back across the road to the edge of the embankment above the railroad yard. I looked for my body on the railbed, or lying cut up on the tracks.

I stood there for a while. Then I went back to my pack and got out my camera and took a picture of the spot where I’d finally managed to get myself killed.

I put on my pack and walked, feeling dazed in the clean, oppressive heat.

Women in cowboy clothing screamed at ugly children, the sound of a fat hand smacking little faces jarred my nerves, and I couldn't shake this terrible cloudy feeling, a great pressure building in my head. After more aimless walking I found The Dog, a Greyhound Station, with cold air jetting out its doors. I ducked inside. A big pink rent-a-cop kept a wicked gaze on me as I moved across the waiting room.

Upstairs in the men’s room I filled a sink with freezing water, soaked my face and rinsed some of the grime out of my hair. In the mirror I saw my nose all red and swollen. I had a big purple bruise on my right cheek. I’d chipped one corner of a front tooth and kept running my tongue over the new sharp edge. I hadn't seen myself for almost two days, and what I saw now was bad; a drained and haggard face passing from childhood to old age with no intervening period of youth.

I leaned against the sink, feeling the porcelain hard and real on my raw wounds. Cold water dripped down my back and chest and bit into my skin. As long as I could still feel I had to be alive, still living, and I said it aloud again and again and again.

Down the road I found an on-ramp. I pumped air with my thumb. A green Datsun pulled up; the driver said he was only going eight miles east. I got in and he told me all about his world. He had a yellow ribbon on his dashboard, he was almost bald, he didn’t have a chin; he looked like he would only sleep in the woods inside a Winnebago with a color TV. I told him I’d hitchhiked and hopped trains across the state to hike a forty-five mile loop around Lassen Park and climb the peak and I got all pumped up as I spoke, feeling like a cocky young man-of-the-world again, knowing my youthful Kerouacian adventures would impress this hospital accountant in his tan polyester suit:

He laughed, "Why you're just an old bum! I wouldn’t even have given you a lift if I’d known that.” He laughed again more heartily, "Lassen's a grandmother's hike, an old woman can do that!” When he let me out a few miles later he gave me an evil smile and hissed, "God bless you!"

I was at the tip of a long flat spit of ground. Tough low trees stood in patches on big fields below a deep blue sky. Low rolling hills formed the northern horizon with Mount Shasta behind them in vague silhouette form. Infrequent cars sped up as they passed. My cuts were bleeding again.

A long-hair in a VW bus made eye contact and nodded as he sped by. The bus slowed, pulled onto the shoulder and stopped, then rolled slowly backwards down the gravel. I ran up to the passenger side and opened the door.

He said, "I'm only going to Shingleton."

"That’s cool with me."

"Put it back there." I threw the pack in and got in and closed the door. We said our introductions and he was back on the road, switching lanes. At first I thought he was going to be one of those quiet weird ones, then he spoke up quick.

"Are you a Christian?"

"No."


He moaned. "Everyone should believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ." He said it with a childlike sincerity.

"I was raised Catholic --"

"Oh, wow -- too bad, it figures! Catholics. They're practically Buddhists, they worship statues --" and he went on like that, ragging on my Mom and Dads’ religion. I was against the Church, too, but that was different, and I still felt a tribal loyalty to it when it was attacked by Protestants. I should have gone against him, but I was weak and afraid and I needed a ride. "You should read the Bible. The Bible has the answers -- the answers for all of us.” He paused. "I used to smoke pot, drink beer, chase women -- these are the Devil's works, drinking alcohol, having sex without --"

"Fucking is the Devil's work?"

"Outside marriage it's fornication," and he said it with a special prim disapproval. He paused. "The Devil is the lord of this world, and all that is of this world belongs to Satan."

His name was Michael. He was on his way to church. He had found Jesus in January. He was from Hollister and had been a drummer in a heavy metal band, but the Archangel Lucifer had been the angel of music, and when God's favorite angel rebelled God had pitched him headlong into hell, and he had taken music with him.

"And that includes ‘Christian Rock,’ too," he said. "Rock, man, I used to love it, lived for it. I was a musician, it was my life. But look at the names. Black Sabbath. `Goats' Head Soup.' `Running with the Devil.' "

I offered, "Me and The Devil Blues."

"I haven't heard of that one."

"It's not rock music, it's an old blues song, about a man who walks with the Devil."

"Yeah, well, that's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about -- the Devil walks among men in this world! Sometimes he even signs his name to his works. Did you hear about that thing last week down in Ontario? Near LA?

This girl was having a slumber party with a bunch of friends over, and her brother got dusted on PCP, and he got a long barreled .22 revolver and he went around and shot his sister and all her friends in the head while they were sleeping, and killed them all, and then he shot himself in the head, and he left behind a note. It said, Satan told me to do it. That’s all it said. Satan told me to do it."

“The Devil, huh.”

“It’s in the Bible, it says that’s the sort of thing will happen, it’s like a warning. You haven’t read the Bible, have you?”

"We read part of the Book of Job in World Civ class in high school."

"It's all true. All of it's true. I'm gonna give you a copy of the New Testament, if I can find it, it's in the back, when we stop I'll look for it. It’s the story of Jesus as He walked the earth, and His plan for the entire world. Look, come to this service with me, then I’ll give you a ride to the park.”

I said okay.

He pulled into a gravel parking lot surrounding a featureless small white building.

“We’re late, it’s already started. This will really be a treat for you!”

Inside it was cold like holy water. We quietly made our way to an empty pew behind the last row of worshippers. The preacher was a small elderly man in a gray suit. He had a gentle, soothing voice. The church was a white room with orange carpeting and a low flat ceiling. The pews were only half-full. The congregation was middle-aged and elderly people, and from the shape of their bodies and their clothes they had to be from the local working class. I fixed on one big pink old man with a John Deere hat, and then on his obese wife; a loose blue frock, gray hair in a bowl cut, wire-rimmed glasses like mine. I could smell the damp food baking in their house, see their photo albums, hear the stuff these nice people would say about blacks and foreigners. Man, what would I have to talk about with you?

I hadn’t been in a church in years. This service was taking a really long time. I could feel the pressure lifting. These people around me had something to comfort them in their fears, and atheists must be heroic and face the world alone, and I had to be honest and admit that I wasn’t such a brave guy anymore. When I was a little boy and felt afraid I would pray, and it worked; my fear would lift.

Prayer connected me to something strange and marvelous and overwhelming, it made me feel loved and protected; alive or dead I knew that I would never be alone. Somehow the shock of my fall from the train and the simple appeal of the old man’s calm quiet voice made me want to believe whatever these old folks around me believed. I wanted to see the world through their eyes, to feel a living bond to these people, to all people, a bond to everyone who has ever lived and died, even to the worst ones, and the minister said, "...one afternoon, before an important meeting at which a great evangelist would speak, I went to the chapel for prayer. I found the evangelist kneeling at the front of the chapel, and I knelt to pray with him.

“His lips were moving. As I prayed I heard him whispering, "Lord, I just can't do it on my own. I can't do it alone..." I’d expected the old man to offer brush-after-every-meal advice, but that last line hit me hard. Then I got a big knot in my stomach, a trap-door opened beneath me, I was falling, and all that stuff from childhood came flooding back, toppling my fragile props of logic. Through the scratches on my lenses I watched the flaccid, decaying faces of the Protestants and eyed them with a growing fear.

Michael made us leave early. It was colder and almost dark as the van pulled out of the parking lot.

"That preacher was kind of boring. I was really hoping you would be able to hear this young minister who leads my Bible study group. He’s so exciting! He can really fill you with the spirit!”

He gave me a long side glance. “Our meeting back there on the side of the road was no coincidence. He sent me to give you The Word..." and he pointed up at the roof of the vehicle. The van was an older model with windows that slid backwards to open instead of rolling down. I opened the window and the rush of air made it harder to hear him. I got two sweaters out of the backpack. I put them on. I was still shaking. We began ascending low hills that were more thickly forested than the spot where he'd picked me up. Daylight was fading fast in the gaps between the trees.

He asked, "Has anyone ever told you about the Book of Revelation and the Anti-Christ? The stuff with the hostages, the embassy? It’s all in the Bible.

You know how, like, in supermarkets, in Alpha Betas and Luckys, you know those little thin black and white lines on the back of a box of cereal?"

"Yeah. A bar code, the Universal Product Code. It’s --"

"That's the Mark of the Beast!"

"The Universal Product Code is the mark of the Anti-Christ?”

"Believe it! Just watch, the Bible says that in about five years, or maybe less than five years, the US government is going to eliminate money. Then the way we'll have to buy stuff is with a little card with that code on it, like a credit card, except they're gonna be issued by the government. Then, for convenience sake, the government's gonna put the mark on our hands. And that mark is going to be the Number of the Beast."

"Right. Three nines. "

"No, three sixes, six-sixty-six. The Beast is going to be a leader, maybe President of the US, and when he comes to power everyone will think he's a really great man.”

“Carter -- or Reagan?” I heard fear in my voice.

“Maybe a Russian, with the mark upon his face. For a time he'll do great things, wonderful things, stuff that appears to be miraculous. People will follow him, and give him total power so that soon he'll rule the world. But he's The Devil, the Beast, he's The Anti-Christ, he's Satan! And he’s gonna start a war in the Middle East that’ll turn into a nuclear war and destroy all life on Earth. That’s when Christ will come again...”

It hit me, a hammer-blow, an electric shock inside my head -- I was still lying on smooth yellow rocks in the railroad yard with blood seeping out my eyes and ears; everything I saw and heard now was static in my dying brain.

This holy fool beside me was a messenger angel from the Lord, and the road between my terminus on the railbed and the volcano ahead of me was the path on which I must make a final choice; throw myself at the feet of the vengeful Christian god and hope for an insipid reward, or remain proud, and go to the place of the damned through boiling mudpots or a sulfur fumarole at the base of the volcano, to everlasting punishment and torment without end. Even my topo map of the park said `HELL' on it, near the area where we were going. I felt for a pulse on my right wrist and pressed the wrist hard between thumb and fingers, but all I felt was a bone and stiff cold flesh. I remembered how cold the flesh of corpses had been when I'd touched the hands of dead relatives in their coffins. I tried to close the window, but it wouldn't move.

"I should have warned you. That window's broken. Once you open it you can't get it shut again."

We were silent for a little while. The mad thought receded and I didn’t want it coming back since it meant that I was either dying or going crazy. He said, “Sean, where do you suppose you’ll be in a million years?”

“I suppose I’ll be dead.” “ No you won’t. You won’t be dead. You’ll be somewhere. You didn’t come out of nothing, and you didn’t come from an ape. You will exist forever, in heaven or in hell -- do you know where you’re going, Sean? When I die, I know where I’m going, see?” He pointed upward again. “But if we have an accident and you go flying through the windshield and break your neck and get killed, well, you may be a good person, but that won't matter. A lot of good people are going to be cast down with the bad -- into the pit with Satan.

“All the evil you hear about today, the injustice and oppression -- where does it come from? Why does someone pick up a hitchhiker, and then rape them and cut them up and bury them in the woods, or grab a little child, and sexually molest them and torture them to death!? Why does stuff like that happen! Tell me why it happens!”

“I don’t know, man.”

“Today there’s wars all over the earth, millions of people starving, plagues of weird new diseases -- everything is falling apart. Everything. All around us. Why? There’s a reason why, and it’s in the Bible. The Bible said it would be that way, during the End-Times, during the final days of life on earth -- that’s now. We’re all paying now. We’re all paying a terrible, terrible price for all the wrong we’ve done, hundreds and thousands of years of wickedness, all coming down on us now. We’re going to have to pay for it now.”

Michael took a deep breath of cold air.

“So say you don’t believe me – you think it’s just a story. But in you, and in me, and in every one of us there is this emptiness, this terrible emptiness, and it gives us unendurable pain, and that emptiness won’t be filled by sex or music or drugs, or by owning things, by things you might do in this world. It can only be filled by God.”

In the dim glow from the headlights his face became thinner, a white mask. He looked like a ghost. He looked like me. I pinched my nose with my fingers and tried to blow air out my ears. My ears popped. His voice was louder.

“Faith in Jesus Christ will set you free. I’m not gonna tell you it’s easy. It isn’t easy. It’s a great struggle, it’s the most difficult thing you’ll ever do, and it’s a struggle afterwards, it’s a terrible struggle, it’s a struggle all along. But only faith in Christ can free you. And if you can’t accept Him, then everything is hopeless and everything becomes pain without end.

“We haven’t got much time left. Be brave. He is risen -- Jesus is alive.

Choose Jesus, just let him into your heart -- do it now!”

We followed signs to the lake. He killed the engine and the lights. In the dark I hauled my pack out of the van. All around me I felt the surrounding immensity of the forest and imagined it stretching on for hundreds of miles until it gave way to an alkali desert in Nevada. Stars began appearing on the blue dome above me; I was scared of monsters in the woods and I didn’t want to be alone that night. I asked him to have a cup of tea with me before moving on. I scavenged pine needles and fallen pieces of wood from the base of a tree and made a little fire on the sand a dozen yards from the water. He crouched a few yards away. As I got the fire going he moved a little closer. I had two cups in my mess kit. I didn't have a camping stove, so I put the aluminum pot at the edge of the fire and filled it with the last water from my canteen. I warmed my palms on the fire, waiting for the water to boil, knowing I would have to give it a try. When he went back to the van for a minute I pressed my hands together between my knees in a supplicating pose of prayer. I closed my eyes, and I tried. I tried. I really did. I wanted it more than anything in the world, even more than I’d wanted my girl in the hotel room. Inside there was nothing. The spell was broken. It had died somewhere back there on the highway.

When he came back the lid on the pot was hoping around, so I took the pot off the fire, scorched my fingers and yelled, “Goddammit!”

“Would you please not take the Lord’s name in vain?”

That made me angry. He wore a sleeveless T-shirt, and during the ride up to the park I'd jealously compared his drummer arms and big shoulders to my bony arms and the way my ribs showed and my knobby elbows and knees. I wouldn't have a chance in a fight, unless I could hit him with something from behind.

The tea was scalding. He drank it fast. He sat with his legs crossed, warming his hands on the fire, rubbing his arms, looking up at the sky. I tried to steer the conversation away from God.

"Do you know the constellations?"

He looked at me, then looked up again.

"No. The Little Dipper, maybe." He was embarrassed. "Do you?"

I couldn't see the stars for the glow of the fire. I didn’t think he couldn’t, either. I made a snorting noise. "No. Not really. After the fire goes out there are so many of them that I don't know how anybody can tell them all apart."

"When you see something as wonderful as the sky at night, up here in the mountains, you know that God must love us --"

“The stars don’t revolve around us,” I said, and I wanted to laugh, but the sound came out ugly and sad instead.

“Death -- nothing happens. You evaporate. You, me, everybody. This is all you get." I flapped my hands at the trees, and at the darkness above us, at the silent, godlike cosmos, then feeling expansive and wise I added, "All this, the bad with the good, all together. It all comes together -- see? Then we have to disappear."

The word “disappear” echoed over the water. When I said those words I’d only half-believed them, but now a great power was singing in me: it had come from out of nowhere, a gift from the stars. He was weak; he was the one who had fallen. He was a liar, and I had been a frightened little boy who had wanted to believe his lies; the absurd elements in his message had only added to its hold on me. Hell would be to waste life fearing death. At the end it’s just a simple void, and that stung me, and now I was free. I felt so strong and good inside that tears came to my eyes. If my enemy saw me weeping I would tell him it was just smoke from the flames. I stood up and looked down on him on the other side of the fire. I wasn’t giving this motherfucker a second chance.

“It’s time for you to go. Now.” I pumped my thumb in the direction of his van. I blinked and he was gone, then I heard his footsteps, walking away quickly.


A door on the van opened, then slammed shut. He was in the drivers' seat, trying to turn on the ignition. I ran up to the passenger side window.

"Hey, Michael, it's been really good to meet you.” It was too dark to see but I could tell he wasn’t looking at me. The engine wasn’t starting.

“I really mean that -- I can’t even tell you how much.”

I just stood there for a moment, trying to make him out in the dark, and find the words to thank him for the unintended gift he had brought into my life.

“You made me very happy!” I said.

And then I just felt foolish. The engine came to life. He dug around in the junk behind his seat, then opened the glove box and found a gray paperback copy of Good News for Modern Man, a Protestant version of the New Testament.

He scribbled the post office box address of his Bible study class on the inside front cover and gave it to me. I promised him I'd carry the book into the backcountry with me, and that when I found Christ I'd write to tell him.

The van wandered away through the trees and its headlights disappeared, the engine-sound slowly trailing away. The only light in the park was the fire. I drank another pot of tea, adding twigs and pine needles to the unenthusiastic flames. Soon the fire went out. There was no moon. The sky was darkest blue, riddled with thousands of stars.

I stood, looking at the lake and at the stars, shifting from foot to foot, wrapping my arms tight around me. He was gone, and I was free, and I was still alive. A white line streaked across the background of stars and disappeared. Above a line of trees and framed by stars Mount Lassen formed an abrupt black void in the sky.

A moment later the glow inside me faded, leaving behind a familiar husk of boyish apprehension and dislocation, the smell of cars on my skin and a crushing exhaustion. It was a raw cold night. I found my flashlight. It didn't work. Blind I unhooked the bungee cords, rolled out the foam pad and pawed at the sleeping bag. A rip in the seam at the bottom of the bag had expanded into a two-foot- long hole. I took off my boots and pants and shirt, put on my long underwear and wool socks and all my sweaters and my ski gloves and knit cap, then put my pants and boots back on and wiggled into the sleeping bag, wadding it up at the bottom and propping my backpack over the bottom of the bag to keep me warm enough to sleep. My head and shoulders protruded from the bag. I lay still for a long time, racked with hateful thoughts and terrified of the night and of animals in the woods and of the overpowering cold. I clenched my arms and legs together, rolled up into a ball and kicked open the hole at the bottom of the sleeping bag. I put my backpack on the bottom of the bag again but the empty pack didn't weigh enough to pin it closed. Wind rushed up the bag and coiled around my lower body and I rolled around in pain and hid my face, and every now and then I looked up at the stars, longing for daylight, marking time in the stars’ slow course across the sky.



En ung man tjyvåker på godståg och träffar på underligt folk. Av Kevin Keating.