XV — And off we set with the black bag
And off we set with the black bag in the trunk of the car. The drive to the restaurant is some two hundred miles of desert, mountain passes. The plains. Blue sky. The car whispers along barely touching the straight roads and the peaceful land. His brown boots are up on the dashboard keeping time with an old tune that fades in and out on the radio. I drive this road. I own it. Other cars or trucks are a rarity. So when we do come upon a car I glance over to the driver and they glance back. They don’t have the black bag in the trunk, though. And they probably wouldn’t want it. They may have a dead girl in there or maybe just some clothes, a suitcase of clothes. Tools, rope, oil, pump, shovel. Blanket. The car eases up and I ease ahead of it. Looking in the mirror all I can see is the driver silhouetted against the flat horizon. Getting smaller and smaller. Disappearing into the heat haze. Quietly merging in and then. Gone.
The endless journey in this desert is the thing. We glide along in our little world making just a whisper. The passenger pulls out a crumpled carton of cigarettes. He arches his back up and carefully extricates the crumpled pack from his jean pocket. He carefully solves the crumpled flip lid and slips out a bent smoke. Why keep ‘em in that pocket? They always get squashed. He holds the bent cigarette in his lips and flips up the lighter with the recognizable click. It’s kind of a two-part sound: click-ka. Click-ka. It kind of sounds like an old bolt-action rifle being cocked; strangely soothing. The sound always feels vaguely familiar but on a really deep level. Something innate, maybe.
I met a girl once who told me that men who pull a crumpled pack of smokes from their back jean pocket did something for her, he explains. He explains that when she was distracted he slid his packet of cigarettes from the pristine space of his jacket down into the squashed back of his blue jeans. And then quietly mashed them in with his hand. The girl came back from somewhere in the depths of the party a few minutes later and he took that opportunity, when she was talking and looking straight in his face, to smoothly slide his hand back, pull out the crumpled packet, pull out a bent cigarette and without glancing at it or paying it any attention at all slip it between his lips. And kept looking straight at her. Listening. He explained that she stopped talking and looked straight at the cigarette and then to the packet in his hand. Then back to the cigarette. Then she made a sound like a stifled laugh and he realized the mistake he’d made. Click-ka.
The car whispers along. The passenger winds down the window a little and the blue smoke meandering around draws out into the dry desert air. So he kept his smokes crumpled up from that point on. Reminds him who he was. Fifty miles passes. Hey; I say to him. We all have our little scripts. What do you say about that? He answers straight away saying: no I don’t. I don’t think anything. It comes along as I need it. It’s already there I guess. That’s impossible; but I’m only half engaged with this. For me it’s impossible. Impossible, I assert and then say: give me one of those cigarettes. Click-ka.
Car swooshes along the black road in the desert. Lots of space and quiet. Lots of space. After a few quiet moments, maybe a quiet mile or two and one or two specks of ash on the dashboard I try and explain that what he says agrees with what I know. Or think. Look. I had this experience once. Let me explain.
I was in a restaurant somewhere I forget. Somewhere dirty. The waitress was friendly. But the guy in the kitchen, her man I guess, was less than friendly and could only be what nature intended him to be. So when I shot him. Or stabbed him. I forget which it was now. I knew exactly how it would go; what he would do. Say. What I would say. Do. It’s all scripted. Why don’t you rescue that fly that’s been bashing it’s head on the windshield? He reaches to the fly and coaxes along to the side window. Rolls it right down so the fly gets sucked out into the desert. And essentially you said that without realizing it. You said that ‘it comes along as you need it’. And that means that it’s scripted. Maybe you didn’t script it but somebody did. Or something. In fact I believe it forms in between people just at the moment it’s needed. And that means it might already be there. That’s what you said. I think. So it’s the same thing. I think I just confused me and go quiet. But he doesn’t say anything. So maybe he doesn’t notice. I’m only half engaged, anyway. I don’t recall what we’ve been saying. Light me another cigarette. Click-ka.
A hundred miles. And then some. What about the bag? He turns round a little in the front seat. It won’t get you if you don’t want it to get you. As long as you hold it in mind. Hold what it is in your head then it will stay at a distance. It won’t concern itself. But the moment you stop. Pause. Paying it attention. Then it may get you. It works itself out in the most insidious ways. Like a cancer I saw once. A cancer that was all teeth and hair. Gristle, bits of bone, brown liquid mush that opened up just spilled out made everyone go white. The dry white realization of just how much mush we all are. And how the mush easily forms into something so real that you can’t escape it. You don’t see it coming and you can’t prepare for it. I don’t reckon you ever reconcile yourself with that.
She’d smoked for a life time and only in the last decade converted to filter-tips. Busied herself in a small one bed apartment being really friendly to the passers-by, the neighbors. Had been married at one time to a war veteran who didn’t speak much of that. But they were happy enough and just counted off the days until he had gone and she was left. She stayed for a couple of years in the big house with just their last dog. Then he grew old too. The grayness overtook them both and then she was the only one left. Some days, when the day had grown old, she would look up and across the room and realize how long she’d been sat at the kitchen table. The remains of a sandwich still on the plate with the bread crust dry curled up at the edge. The day had gone. The light was dimming down to just a black and white frame round the shapes in the room. The apartment was a downsize to a different town. Closer to what could be called family. One day I happened in to see her after a couple of days in the desert. I don’t know why. I got the feeling to swing by and detour to see her out of the blue. She was more than happy to give me a cup of coffee and spend the afternoon telling me how I need to take care, look after children. Thank somebody bigger and more substantial than me for putting me here. I was happy to see her and felt a certain closeness that went straight to when I was much more, or less, together. Less acquainted with the world; that’s for sure. So we drank coffee and the day was pleasant and warm. Two weeks later I sat by her hospital bed wondering if she was dying. A day later I sat by her hospital bed and the black and white frame had gone, leaving just a black space behind. Another day and the consciousness of my presence came and went and by the end of that first week I sat by her skeleton as it breathed and rasped in bursts. There’s a name for it; the noise of the dying breath. I watched this growing lump emerge from her right breast. It pushed up through the bandages that had been put to keep it in; keep it hidden. But it wanted to make itself known and sent out brown-yellow mucus that seeped out from the edges of the gauze. It reached out to us. So when a quiet time of afternoon came and the nurses were down the ward tending here and there I took the opportunity to pull round the curtains. The stillness may have been in my head or it may have been that someone decided to give me just a little space whilst I went about my task. I pulled back the thin yellow stained sheet and slipped down the bed gown. The pale blue flowers stained also. And I slipped a finger under the bandage, one on either side of the breast and gently pulled it away from the tissue underneath. And then I lifted it up the chest. I just looked silently at the place where the bandage had been. I said to her: how did it come to this? Why didn’t you do something? There was a nurse stood behind me. And another. They saw the drawn curtains. We looked on and said nothing. The day had passed us by.
We sat and watched it disappearing behind the mountain range behind the town which we looked down upon and across the flat distance of the valley floor. A collection of pin-prick lights spread across maybe a mile side to side. And above it, above the yellow dirt ribbon that traced the skyline a million billion more pin pricks. But each one more hopeful than those they signaled down on. I followed them up and over my head. Left and right. Round and round and round and watching them get brighter and brighter as the day finally left us behind. We listened to the stillness and the cool air settling around. Dampening our clothes and skin. We heard the metal car shrinking and creaking; resting itself down into the dust. You could be forgiven for thinking, up here in the stillness, that the world had made peace with itself. That it had stopped. That people were sitting down in their front rooms and kitchens and lying side by side in their beds and talking to each other. Saying: that’s it. It’s finished! It’s all okay now. And smiling as they closed their eyes and looked forward to a bright new tomorrow. That’s what I was imagining as I turned to look at him. Just able to make out his shape as a darker patch of background. The sound didn’t register at first. I was looking towards him. Looking just to the side and above and trying to get the shade of a silhouette. It must have been just under the threshold of awareness that he wasn’t moving at all. The sound, also, was just under the threshold. But as it gained volume and drew my attention I became still. Not breathing. Listening to the sound but unable to make out where it came from. I began to sketch it out: regular pulse about a second second and half duration. Four or five second silence. Second, second and a half low, resonant boom; part animal, part machine. Couldn’t guess the distance between us and the sound source and couldn’t give form to its creator. Maybe it is only sound. Disembodied as it makes its way across the desert floor and up in the desert sky. Making its way round and round the world looking for something. But as the sound continued unbroken in its own form I grew uneasy; it imposed itself and used me to take on a shape. I could choose to let this shape grow. Or I could choose to push it back out. I struggled to do either. I watched the pin pricks on the valley floor vanish in a wave from left to right; to reappear a second or so later, and hadn’t realized that he’d come up stood beside me. He put a hand on my shoulder and said look up behind me. Whispered.
Behind us was a ridge. Hard to make out the distance but the ridge was not that high above us. And coming up from behind the ridge were three beams of white light that bobbed back and forth. Sometimes all pointing up and sometimes shining in different directions. Three light beams jerking slightly; about the same pace as a man walks. What do you reckon? I whispered that it might be nothing. Might be something. The sound came across the desert and the light beams searched for something. The car creaked and shrank and we watched. Without a warning he called out into the night; towards the beams. A long, low resonant call that even before it faded into the darkness triggered something. Triggered some kind of response; some kind of need to conceal because at the same moment the call left his lips and even before it could possibly have had time to travel up to the ridge I watched the lights vanish. Leaving behind just the stars. Billions of stars looking down on us.
And at that moment the sound stopped also. There was a pause, and we waited. Watched to see what was going to happen. We listened to the space around us. It rendered that town a million miles away. But a third presence now made itself known with us; appearing somewhere nearby. The air was still. I felt it watching; waiting to see what we were going to do. It watched. Maybe the sound had used me to take on a shape. I couldn’t have prevented that. But I struggled not to give the sound any more of a shape than it might already have got from me. I tried not to imagine what it could look like. The light beams stayed switched off and then it was moving. The stars just above the skyline went black and slowly lit up again. It was moving slowly to our left and around us. The gun wasn’t going to be any use. And anyway, it was in the trunk along with the bag. The bag could be useful, I whispered to him. He didn’t say anything, then slowly I felt him edge away and towards the car. Heard the trunk lock click and the lid glide up. Something out there wants revenge. That’s why it had come. And I realized that if the bag was used then it was gonna make the situation much much worse. But that thought came too late and try as I might to rewind it I just couldn’t do it. The thought got stuck right in the middle. It took that long, a rewound moment, for it to pull itself into a proper shape and come rushing across the short distance to the car. Then it showed me what it was. Standing over him. And there you now stand. Maybe fifteen feet from the car and barely able to make out the darker patch against the dark sky. When did you last see your daughter? Your lover? The chilled air spills down into your throat. So cold. Falling through the ice down. Feel the space around; feel the distance between you and the rest of humanity safe behind their doors. It’s between you and the car but even if you could somehow work round and past, get in the car, close the doors, it can flow through the gaps in the floor; the gaps around the glass, up through the vent pipes and heating duct. That sick feeling in the pit of your stomach and blood racing behind your eyes. Your heart beats fast. Races. A whine. Stops. The point about the Werewolf is this: there are two kinds of things and only two.
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