Thistledown, Part 1

The rain beat time on the car like a spastic jazz drummer. CJ pressed his head against the cool glass of the window and watched as streaks of land went by, dark upon black and made distant by the falling water. The car smelled of old hamburger grease and fake pine scent. For the first hour, he had talked with Frank, the driver, making small talk and trying to pretend he was interested in hearing about Frank’s life on the road as a salesman, “the last of the breed” he liked to say, apparently, because he had repeated that phrase almost a dozen times in that first hour. “The last of the breed, my boy, a traveling salesman, just like that Willie Loman character in that play with Dustin Hoffman, minus the hallucinations and suicide of course.”

Of course.

Frank was ruddy, fat and smiled almost constantly. It didn’t seem like an act to CJ, and in other circumstances, he would have been more than happy to hear the man’s stories, but after spending the past several days hitching, CJ was bone-tired and had lost interest in hearing more stories from other peoples lives. He couldn’t even get his own story straight. He wanted silence, a place to sit slowly and not move for days. Finally, after about an hour, Frank turned to CJ, his pale blue eyes seemed, in that moment, to be some of the kindest eyes CJ could remember seeing.

“Of course, you might want to rest, I’ll stop wagging this old tongue. You mind some music played low?” CJ smiled, and said, picking up Frank’s verbal tic, of course not, thanks, been a long couple of days.

And so, for the past hour, nothing but the rain, occasional thunder, the rumble of the old Ford Fairmont, and the low sound of the radio playing a mix of country and bluegrass tunes. Letting go of focus, of anger, of fear, CJ felt like he was floating on a memory of his childhood, driving in the car with this father. His father before the stroke. His father strong and straight, smelling of wood-shop and Lucky Strikes. Together counting the spaces between lightning and thunder one-mississippi, two mississippi. . .

CRACK

“Jesus,” CJ croaked.

“Holy Tole,” Frank exclaimed, as the lightning burst down to the ground not more than a quarter mile from the road. The air, even in the car, was suffused with an electric, ion smell, a smell both clean and violent, the thunder crack-boom happening damn near simultaneous to the lightning strike.

“Close,” said CJ, wondering if it would get closer, and if the whole being safe in a car thing was true or just myth. He seemed to remember seeing a tv show where a woman’s face was burned by a lightning strike on her car because she had a drop of water on her lip and the electricity had jumped from the metal chassis to her lip in search of conductivity. Was the irony of the universe that sharp and pointed, to kill him now after what he’d just run away from, what he had done to get out? Quite probably.

“You said it, brother, damn close.”

Frank was grinning, he eyes narrowed in concentration on the road, but his lips grinning like a kid.

“Pretty cool, I’ve never been this close to a . . .”

CRACK BAM

The light was blinding. There was a taste of metal in CJ’s mouth, like rust. Or blood. The world seemed to disappear for a moment. Dimly, he was aware that Frank was slowing the car, the grin wiped from his face as the world cracked open for that brief, shining moment. Somewhere, dimly, there seemed to be a skittering sound, like insects laughing, then the world returned, vision readjusted to the the night and the rain. The car had stopped, but Frank was still gripping the steering wheel tightly, his hands white with tension, his breath fast and erratic. Oh fuck, was he having a heart attack? CJ couldn’t remember a damn thing from the CPR class he’d taken over a decade ago, done it to impress a girl more than anything and could only remember the taste of rubber lips on the CPR doll and the sight of Cindy’s red thong emerging from her tight jeans as she leaned over to practice mouth-to-mouth and now there was this stranger having a . . .

“I’m all right, boy-o. No need to look like a naughty puppy, I’m not dying or nothing, just . . . that was . . .”

Frank trailed off. He and CJ made eye contact, both acknowledging that something had just happened.

“Er, pretty intense,” Frank finished with a shrug, knowing how un-intense his statement sounded, and knowing words weren’t quite up to the level of experience in this instance.

“Yeah. Umm, it was. Pretty intense.”

For several minutes, the two men sat in silence, under a raining night recently broken. Then Frank started the car began to drive, slowly, down what seemed, now, to be a lonely, lonely road. Neither spoke. Wheels on asphalt, rain on metal, thunder moving further and further away. CJ leaned against the glass of the window and wondered what had just happened, and where, exactly, he was going.

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