OPEN BORDERS - FICTION - Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines - Arnold's Roadside Café:
Route 80, North Platte
Arnold making supper.
This here's a sculpture, you could call it that. I tied it to the telephone pole so it don’t blow away. Took some doin' to get it up that high, looks like fifteen feet. Keeps the vandalism down, and you can see it from a mile up the highway. The cross's made of bones, coyote most likely. The skull atop the cross–that's a jackrabbit, the biggest I ever seen–and those’re turkey vulture feathers sticking out of the ear holes of the skull. That jack skin and red bandanna hanging from the ends of the cross, Arnold would've liked that touch. I burnt the sign with a railroad spike: Arnolds Cafe.
Arnold worked this stretch along Route 80, from North Platte to Cheyenne, no more’n a couple hundred miles. The first time I met him, I was heading West after hot-footin' it out of Dodge—Dodge, Michigan, that is—after a lumberjack pulled out his axe and threatened to slice and dice me for dancing too close to his girlfriend. I figured sooner or later he’d find out that his dearest and me was doing more than the two-step; I’d best disappear. Chances were that Paul Bunion had never heard of New Mexico, so I decided to head there and pick some peppers before the frost hit, get some cash flowing. I’d picked apples on the Upper Peninsula, paid by the bushel; so it seemed logical I could do all right with jalapeños.
So, back to Arnold. I'd just jumped down from a red Peterbilt that had picked me up in Iowa and was hauling corn to Spokane; time for me to head South. Here's this guy along the highway, all hair, ratty as hell, in a greasy black suit with a raggedy towel covering his ass, and a gunny sack over his shoulder. He bends down and picks up this dead rabbit by the hind legs and pokes it, then sniffs it and nods his head in this approving kind of way, like some government meat inspector.
“Hungry?” he says to me. “This jack’s a good'un, ain't been squished a bit, must've bounced off the wheel.” Then he shakes it. ‘Ain't stiff neither, been dead but a half-hour. Plenty for two.” Then he stuffs the rabbit into his sack and heaves it over his shoulder. “Arnold,” he says, and sticks out his hand. “Arnold Timmons.”
So I traipse behind Arnold, over a dune, down a little gully. There’s his camp, hiding in the sagebrush. He has a tent, you could call it that; more like a burrow dug in the sand, sticks stacked up to make the roof, covered with plastic. Inside the tent I see a blanket, rabbit skins sewed together with twine. Looks like he's been there a while.
Arnold starts a fire, then skins and guts the jack and pokes a stick through it, stem to stern. There’s a spit sort of contraption and he asks me to turn the meat over the fire, says he'll be back in a minute. The rabbit's starting to brown when he comes back, pockets bulging. He grubs in his tent and finds a coffee can, then peels back the plastic top and pulls out some butter pats. “Thanks to the Land O’ Plenty Truck Stop outside of Kimball,” he says. He proceeds to grease up the jack, then reaches in his pockets and pulls out all this stuff: tiny needled leaves, fat leaves with pointy edges, grasses and bark. “Fine herbs,” he says, which he rubs on the rabbit, rubbin' and greasin' while I turn the spit.
The fire’s real low now, and he's in no hurry. Me being on the road straight through since Iowa and the smells sizzling out of that jack are driving me crazy with hunger. We chat while waiting for the meat to cook. He don't tell me much about himself, little pieces though: about trying a year at some community college, something about a kid in Ohio (he turned away from that one pretty fast), working the chicken factories in Maryland. I don't ask why'd you hit the road, we both know the road's mostly about leaving.
After a half-hour or so he pulls the carcass off the stick, halves it and gives me my share on a plastic plate. “Sorry for the lack of utensils,” he says, “besides I think finger food has more character."
Character. Finger food. I work hard not to laugh; he might be one of those sensitive chefs. As hungry as I am, I make myself slow down to just savor it, licking my fingers, picking the ribs, sucking the bones. After we’ve ate we stoke up the fire and lay back. I tell him, “That's the finest meat I've ever tasted, no doubt about it; it’s got character. What's those spices you put on there, anywise?”
“A gift of the plains,” he says, “a secret of the house. If I tell, you'd set up your own restaurant and drive me out of business.”
I supped with Arnold maybe five times in all over the last couple years. It wasn't hard to find him. He'd hang a dead jack on a telephone pole, his sign-post to let fellow travelers know he was in the vicinity: open for business. When I'd see the rabbit sign I'd tell the trucker just let me off here, that’s enough for one day. Then I'd stand on the shoulder and look over the dunes 'til I saw some smoke. Or I'd wait for him to wander up the highway with his catch of the day.
'Round my third visit, after a fine meal of prairie dog with a side of pit-baked yucca root, Arnold’s picking his teeth and says, “You wanta hear my theory about roadkills?”
“You got a theory about roadkills?” I say.
And he says, “You bet, this is too important, you gotta have a theory. First, there's only so much energy in the world; it don’t' change, it just travels around, lodged here for awhile, then there.”
I nod, “I'm with you so far.”
Now he's all revved up. “It’s like this: roadkills is a part of the great cosmic exchange of energy; them dyin' gives us food to live on, the energy moves on.”
Cosmic exchange of energy, I’m thinking to myself, this guy’s going places I ain’t never been.
“When I die,” Arnold says, “I hope some vulture finds me and nibbles away, picks me clean. Then I’ll give the energy back, fill that vulture’s tank so he can have a few more hours of flying time. We’re all glorified roadkills, in one way or other.”
Oh yeah, I found that spooky.
He did this weird thing, too, before you could eat his grub. First, he’d slip a long scraggly black tail feather aside this old red bandanna he wore to keep the hair out of his eyes. Then he’d hold his plastic plate up and thank the Great God of Roadkill for providing us this sacred manna. The Great God of Roadkill. No shit.
Awhile back, Arnold asked if I wanted turkey, the special of the day.
“Where’n hell you find a turkey out here?” I asked.
“This is a very special turkey,” he said, greasing up that bird, greasing and turning. Then he dished me up a serving.
“Damn fine,” I nodded, “though a tad chewy.”
“Actually it’s a turkey vulture,” he said. “Got smashed by a Kenilworth while feasting on squashed jacks in the passing lane.”
“So who’s to complain?” I said. “Thanksgiving in July.”
When I found Arnold last, it looked like he'd been passed a day or so, layin' outside his tent. Maybe his heart gave out, maybe the heat got him, it don't really matter. No smoke, just a circle of vultures. The elements and animals had started to work on his face and hands. I thought about burying him, or maybe flagging down the State Police. Then I thought better. I tidied up his campsite a bit, stacking the wood, straightening out the blankets in his tent. I dug a hole and buried some old clothes and empty tin cans. Then I gathered up some leaves, sage and other stuff, and sprinkled it over him.
The turkey vultures above dipped their wings. Yessir: Arnold Timmons, cosmic easy pickins.