To Mme H.
Six hours north to New Palz. Do it – two hours and back.
‘Go on,’ said Vivian. ‘I was up the whole night with it!’
I grabbed the flask, took in a noseful. ‘What’s in it?’
‘Try it first,’ she said.
I sipped; a tangle of cinnamon, maybe, and lavender – essence of something. ‘Leave it a mystery.’
The sun was soft, sleepy-eyed. Vivian yelped – a wasp had hit the passenger headrest. I grabbed it and tossed it out of the window.
‘Did it get you?’ Vivian took my hand, removed the sting. She sipped from the flask and kissed the wound with wet lips.
I cranked up the windows. The leaves were accumulating on the roadside trees; Vivian dug around at her feet, and brought up her camera.
‘Some good shots around here,’ I said.
She pointed it at me; I pulled down the visor. Sped up.
Traffic was tight as we moved into the village.
‘Oh my!’ said Vivian. ‘It’s as beautiful as I remember it.’
‘Want to stop somewhere?’ I asked.
She turned to me. ‘Don’t you wanna just get there?’
‘I need the restroom,’ I said.
‘Oh, I wish there wasn’t so many cars,’ she said. ‘Sorry hun, what?’
‘Restroom,’ I said, spying a gap outside a café.
She laughed, ‘I’m sure they’ll have one, you know.’
I pulled from the traffic. ‘Not chancing it.’
I made my way back through the clientele, catching my thigh on a chair-end. I saw Vivian making faces from the table she’d chosen.
‘What’s all this?’ I asked.
‘Oh, these are almond biscottis,’ she said.
‘You ordered these? I’m not very hungry.’
‘Oh I know,’ she replied. ‘Those guys sent ‘em over.’
I looked behind me; two men were smiling at Vivian from the other end of the café.
I sat down, nodded thanks. I took a biscotti and bit it in two.
Her green eyes watched my mouth.
‘Do you want me to check?’ I asked.
‘Already have, they’re gluten-free,’ she said. ‘But they’re all yours.’
We pulled up outside a park. ‘So what can we expect?’ I asked her.
‘Well, I don’t know about him,’ she said. ‘But Marge was always crazier than me.’
I looked at her; no twitch, no grin.
‘So, we’re looking at two college stoners who never grew up?’
She giggled. ‘Take another drink,’ she said.
I grabbed the flask.
‘There’s nothing to worry about, you know.’
‘They’ve done this before. There’s nothing unusual.’
‘And anyway’, she said, taking out her lipstick. ‘It’s medicinal.’
We walked through a grove; the sun was nestled between the boughs. Vivian crept around the trunks, pointing her lens up at the canopy. She clicked the camera and a hawk fluttered.
‘You need lessons in stealth,’ I said.
‘You’re the guy for it,’ she replied.
We reached the edge of the treeline, facing the open green. Vivian gasped – ‘El Diablo!’
I followed her gaze…an enormous horned skull was looking right at us.
‘Jesus,’ I muttered. ‘I thought it was floating.’
‘Go stand next to it!’ She said. ‘You’ll look good together.’
I approached it. The skull was long, attached to a post of solid pine. I felt the nasal cavity; the bone was rough, old, exquisitely formed. The horns curved out like steel arms; I grabbed one, pulled it – no give.
‘Okay,’ I said, turning to face the camera.
‘Huh?’ she said. ‘Oh, I’m all done.’
We saw a vehicle in the distance; its front end stuck out from the corner of a thicket.
‘That must be them,’ I said.
Vivian said nothing, walked on ahead of me.
‘Why are they parked there?’ I shouted. It was a trailer – black and gold paint-job, with spiked fenders. The sun jumped above the treetops, and I lost sight of Vivian.
Girlish whooping shimmied through the thicket; a raven somewhere cawed, up high.
‘Wow! I’m getting high just smelling this!’
I cracked the window, took the bag from her.
‘What’s wrong, hun?’
‘We could get pulled over.’
‘You’ve been acting weird ever since we left.’
‘Jesus,’ I murmured.
‘I’m amazed I can even drive after all that shit they poured us.’
‘Oh, it was crazy! I can’t wait to make some at home.’
‘You won’t find those ingredients at home.’
‘Maybe you shouldn’t have had so much.’
The sun was low and intense at the other end of the road. ‘I was being polite.’
‘Polite? You were draining it like you had something to prove!’
She took some snaps of a burnt-out sedan on the roadside. I was keeping a clear 2 under the limit. I reached back and grabbed an empty container and put it on my lap.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Vivian. ‘Are you sick?’
‘I dunno,’ I replied. ‘Maybe a little.’
‘Pull over. We have time. We can stop.’
‘It’s alright,’ I said. I caught a flash of her eyes in the rear-view mirror. I kept mine on the road.
‘Marge’s had quite a life with that guy,’ she said.
‘It’s bullshit,’ I said.
‘What? All the stories?’
‘Yeah. No way has a guy like that done all he says.’
‘So…the photographs on the walls of him with Reagan, Cheney, Abdullah…they’re all photoshopped?’
‘I’m not saying that.’
‘Jack Nicholson, too?’
‘I’m not saying he never met ‘em.’
‘What are you saying then?’
‘That he…wasn’t nearly as involved as he insinuated.’
‘So, what was his role?’
‘I dunno. Maybe he was their mule, you know?’
‘Maybe he was their goddamn astrologer. I mean, Jesus, having a chest-length beard and a jewelled tooth probably takes you a long way in certain circles.’
‘Marge says they call him The Fixer.’
‘Nope. Hand on heart.’
‘That’s got to be a joke.’
‘The whole thing: it just isn’t right.’
‘You’re sweating, hun. Want some water?’
‘Oh, god no.’
We were within an hour of home. The red evening light crept in under the visor.
‘How long will this stuff last you?’ I asked.
Vivian stirred with half-closed eyes. ‘Oh, a few months. Don’t worry, they said they’d make the trip to our place next time.’
I looked at her. ‘We can’t have that.’
‘I can’t afford to be associated with ‘em. Pair of creepy trailer-humping potheads.’
‘Maybe he can help you,’ she said.
‘Well, sure. All those connections; think what he could do for the business.’
‘He’s a pothead! A degenerate.’
‘He’s more than that, and you know it.’
‘Just pretentions. So he deals for the stars, so what?’
Vivian drifted off. I drove in the half-light, rubbing my eyes. There was a thud – the steering wheel shook. I slowed down, stopped. No other cars around. I looked at Vivian. No response. I got out and walked up the road.
A fox was sprawled on the verge, breathing heavily. I picked up a tooth from the tarmac and pocketed it. I took a blanket from the trunk, quietly. The blanket went around the fox three times over. I put him on the backseat, his head over the edge. I took the empty container from my seat and placed it on the floor, under the fox’s mouth. He looked at me with gratitude, or contempt. I couldn’t decide.
‘Were you sick?’ Vivian asked, stirring.
‘No, it’s nothing.’ I ran her long, thick hair in my hand. ‘Go back to sleep.’
I looked behind; the fox stared. We both listened to the blood hitting the container.
I pulled away. The sun was gone. I opened it up under the highway lights – nearly home.
R. G. Foster is a writer from the North of England who’s published extensively across several mediums and on numerous subjects. He currently runs the freelance writing business, Foster Editorial. A collection of his poetry entitled Achilles On Reprieve is soon to be published with Lapwing Publications.
Artwork: Published as halftone in Harper’s Weekly, 1897, p. 807. This work is in the Public Domain.–