Bear Kosik

One Way
The cellphone was useless here. It needed a charge anyway. All around the uniformity of the landscape was matched by the uniformity of the overcast sky. Yes, in one direction, west perhaps, some trees marked the horizon and in the opposite the less-dark line of a ridge. Or maybe they were both ridges. Hard to tell. There’s rarely a need to reach an accurate conclusion in situations like this.

Then again, accuracy itself is usually a moving target in situations like this.
The blacktop intersecting horizontally with his path snaked into those distances. Maybe snaked isn’t the right word for a road that offers a classic example of foreshortened visual perspective. Nature has been known to create things that appear perfectly linear, but only human engineering can pull this off. See the problem with trying to be accurate? Maybe that’s why straightforward isn’t actually a direction.

What sounded like a chainsaw could be heard. It was impossible to tell where it was coming from. Certainly not from behind him, unless…. This had been happening more often than usual lately. Two possible paths, no bars, not much juice left anyway, and nobody left to blame. No wonder Janus is known for looking both ways and never crossing.

Somewhere somebody had to have a schedule that listed exactly how many wrong turns someone can take in life before everything was required to smooth itself out. Those wrong turns certainly seemed to have been piling up. Sure, it came with the territory when you live life off the straight and narrow. But Delmont Thomas thought he had corrected his ways sufficiently to no longer expect every choice he made was most likely going to be a bad one.

He knew it couldn’t have always been like this. There had to be a turning point when he veered off from the trajectory set up by elders, environment, and early education. That’s right. Go all the way back to … what? The decision not to go to college? Hell! That was probably the right way to go. Who knew?

The problem when Delmont Thomas had a choice to make was that he couldn’t tell if it was the right choice or a good choice even long after it had been made. What did that therapist tell him? You make the best choice you can at the time given the information you have at that time. Maybe it sounded more profound then because he always went to therapy appointments stoned. The giggles from being high certainly kept away any diagnosis of depression.

The trouble is that way of thinking assumes a person is seriously considering the situation and the options available every time a choice needs to be made. It doesn’t take into account whether the person is intelligent enough to understand the facts or diligent enough to look into the facts. It assumes people actually care enough to put some positive effort into the task of deciding all of those things in life that need to be decided. It helps to be clean and sober, too.

That was a condition Delmont Thomas had acquired after much whining and conniving due to the way addictions repurpose good intentions to achieve instant gratification. It wasn’t a coincidence that the forty-three-year-old still clung more firmly to a large book of Escher drawings with their impossible stairways than the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Staying stopped when it came to drugs and alcohol required finding the exit. Delmont was determined to find one in Escher’s illustrations. All the Big Book provided was a roadmap to progress once one found an exit.

Ariana Delgado gave the Escher book to Delmont twenty-two years earlier. She gave him his first Big Book twelve years later. At no point did she ever question whether she had done those two tasks in the correct order. That was one of her finest qualities in Delmont Thomas’ eyes.

She was and remained the closest thing to a steady fuck he had in this lifetime. That was her word by the way. For years, Ariana was home base or maybe the pole Delmont’s balls were tethered to when he started flying around. It sure seemed like he was going in circles every time he ventured out looking for … what?

Maybe that was the problem. Behind every decision lies a goal. Sometimes it is unstated. Sometimes it is unachievable. Nonetheless, a purpose, the next thing stands on the path one chooses. The choice is made in order to reach that goal.

But Delmont Thomas lacked goals. He prided himself on not thinking much of the future, not dwelling on dreams when things needed to be done here and now. Turning down that baseball scholarship reflected his embrace of the present. Why chase hopes of getting into the majors or earning the first degree anyone had in his family? As far as Delmont Thomas was concerned, the future did not exist.

Any choice Delmont made was missing a goal to focus on once the choice was made. He could find all the reasons he needed not to do things. Whittled down in that manner, the options ended with something he could find no reason not to do. So, that’s what he would do. Simple.

That’s how he and Ariana stayed more or less together for so long. There was never a reason to give up the security of a safe house to crash in at tended by a beautiful soul with a comforting body. Even when she got married, the light remained on. Only she could find a wife who understood how some relationships could not be altered by a vow of commitment made later in the game.

Ariana was the reason he was at this point in his life not knowing which direction to head. He was compelled to find some other means of comforting his ego enough to not depend on a married lover to do so. Maybe he was gaining a sense of dignity that now prevented him from insinuating himself into someone’s relationship based on seniority. But where had that left him? Facing two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody he could reasonably blame.

Three hours earlier, Delmont had turned off whatever road he was on to check out a place claiming to be an opal mine where folks could dig up their own gemstones. He liked opals in the same way he liked raspberries, not in the same way he liked cats. They always attracted his attention, but he could live without them.

That reminded him. Once he did have a working phone again he’d better check whether Junior was going in and feeding the cats or just leaving a bag of kibble on the floor for them to tear into. At least he knew they had access to water so long as that Buddha fountain in the den kept running. Come to think of it, Ariana gave him that too, completely from concern about the cats living with a human who tended to go feral than any thought of Delmont’s spiritual needs.

With no more information than a weary sign saying Dig for Opals and Mine Open to Public, Delmont was on his way. The trek down to the site was an hour-long gut-buster. Either the mine was not productive enough for the owners to provide pavement or they found more productive ways of using the money made from the mine.

The place looked exactly like one might expect an old mine to look like somewhere around the Oregon-Nevada border. A family of four from Minnesota was finishing up their adventure. Aside from looking dusty and sweaty, they seemed cheerful enough. Then again, Delmont suspected everyone from Minnesota was required to be cheerful all the time or face banishment to North Dakota.

The mine operator turned out to be on the young side of geezer, just the kind of guy you did not want to look at if he was standing next to you at a urinal unless you were really that desperate. A flat fee of sixty-two genuine American dollars got a person a ten-pound sack of rock to pummel in the hopes of finding some milky opalescence within.

Unlike the times when one has reached a fork in the road and must choose left or right, making the decision to spend money always has a lot more considerations to consider. Someone in Mr. Thomas’ socioeconomic demographic had to weigh the probabilities of finding something of value and the pleasures of whacking at stones for half an hour or so against the priorities of gas, food, and lodging once this detour was in the rearview mirror. Added in was the time spent having already made the turn. What does one do in this situation?

As foretold, victory comes to the choice that requires the least amount of activity. Delmont looked around the place a bit, ignoring the proprietor’s lustful gaze until he was satisfied he would appear to have evaluated the situation politely enough not to cause affront if he got in his car and left. Then he nodded to the gent and did just that.

Partway down the track to the highway, Delmont got the feeling he had exited in a different direction from which he had entered the compound. Given the scrub desert flora as far as could be seen surmounted by something that looked like ridges or trees in several different points on the compass, he had little to go on to determine whether the feeling was just some subconscious anxiety about not having added to the mine owner’s satisfaction or a genuine, inner gyroscope telling him he was not on the path he had been on earlier.

Almost two hours later, Delmont Thomas stood at the end of that unpaved road, with two different ways to go, a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame. Head for the hills or the alleged forest? Make the best choice you can make given the information you have. His gut said forest.

Naturally, he turned right toward the hills. It was as un-thought-out a move as turning down the track to the mine. But, the turn down to the mine had resulted in Delmont finding other human beings, something largely missing from his days recently and nonexistent in his nights.

Somewhere in his brain, Delmont knew to turn right had been a good move. Not yet a time to celebrate, but a moment worth remembering as he felt more comfortable with himself than he had in weeks. He could actually feel his shoulders loosen up a bit from unloading some of the burdens.

At least he did until the source of the two-stroke chainsaw noise made itself evident. Not a quarter of a mile down the road, two motorcycles approached heading for the forest, mufflers grinding out that sound that marked bikers who didn’t give a shit about anyone else’s rights to peace and quiet. That explained why the noise had sounded much closer than the horizon.

The bikers raised their left hands from the handlebars in that salute that indicates they think you are part of their tribe. When one is driving an eighth-generation Eldorado on a desolate highway in southeastern Oregon or northwestern Nevada, chances are bikers will assume that.

Delmont slowed down. He was curious whether the bikers might turn off to the opal mine. He kinda hoped they would. He watched the motorcycles insert themselves into the highway at the point where perspective made the narrow strip of asphalt seem to disappear. The sign of dust rising indicated they may have been seduced by the possibility of finding rainbow starlight in a rock. Before long the clamor of the machines was merely an echo reproduced by senses that also had conjured several visual mirages.

Nothing more to do but drive. The radio in the old Eldorado was stuck on a channel. Delmont took pride in checking whether a signal was broadcast at that frequency at least once a day. He couldn’t remember if he had checked earlier but thought not since there had been not much of anything to broadcast to in this stretch of road.

Instead of turning on the radio, he pushed the gas pedal down further to a point where that special V-8 engine sounded more like it enjoyed the trip. As a result, the ridge that separated this valley from the next became more defined.

Before long, the extensive hood of the Eldorado was plowing its way up the slope of the now winding road. The overcast had broken up a bit, but the land and sky were still too vaguely illuminated to determine the time. Not that it mattered much. He had nowhere to go and didn’t mind when he got there.

The car reached the top of the incline and leveled off for a short while. Just as it seemed the road was starting to head back down, a pair of crows inspecting the ground around some sage took off, perhaps spooked by the oncoming presence of that once-splendid vehicle.

Crows in the dry landscape were as welcome as finding seabirds about in the ocean. They wouldn’t have strayed too far from more comfortable surroundings. A town of some size must be nearby. Perhaps not right away, but the black birds provided hope. Sure enough, at the far side of the next valley, the road met another. The signs indicated Mr. Thomas had been traveling on Route 140 and was now in Nevada. Winnemucca was maybe an hour away at most.

Much of the remaining pressure on Delmont’s shoulders dropped away thanks to that green piece of metal. Now would be a good time to see if any music might come out of that radio. He turned the knob for volume and was met with an announcer reminding all within hearing that this afternoon was the kick-off of Winnemucca’s Basque festival. Things were looking up.

The first place Delmont headed to once in town was a truck stop along Interstate 80. Sure enough, that was the best spot to charge his phone, use the facilities, and decide whether he ought to eat there or check out the offerings at the festival.

He felt comfortable enough with the ladies at the counter to leave his phone for a while to charge. By chance, one recommended he ought to go to the festival while he was waiting. She assured him it was a one-of-a-kind experience. And she offered to bring his phone to him. Was that a come-on? Delmont allowed the idea but paid it no attention.

In a town of fewer than eight thousand residents, it was easy enough to find the festivities in the old downtown area near the bank famous for having been robbed by Butch Cassidy. Delmont found a parking spot and shuffled out of the car and down the block to see what was what. And what he saw was surprising.

Delmont was relatively certain he had seen her before. She looked like a shorter version of Allison Janney. Then again, a lot of women in places like Winnemucca looked like shorter versions of Allison Janney. It’s a strange but true fact that women living in similar conditions wind up looking like one another after a while because they share the same clothes, hairdressers, makeup, lighting, and life stresses. Just look at the women on Fox News.

At present, Delmont needed to decide whether to approach her or not. This was again one of those choices that had specific features. It fell into the same category as applying for jobs, submitting stories to literary magazines, and gambling. If one does not take action, the answer will always be no. That means never getting the job, never getting published, and never hitting the jackpot. That meant never picking up the woman. One must take action for there to be any real choice.

Knowledge of that fact did not make it any easier to go through with the required action. The trick came in believing there is respectability in asking even if the answer winds up being no. The honor lies in the doing, not the result.

Of course, the situation would be much easier if Delmont lubricated his confidence with alcohol. That had been the attraction of using and drinking back in the day. Everything was much easier to handle drunk or high. However, in that case, the honor would no longer lie in the doing since the doing would be supported by artifices designed to reduce the psychological challenges of doing.

Besides, Delmont Thomas was no stranger to rejection in courtship since he started abstaining from those magical substances. Sobriety never softened the blow, but being sober dampened the recoil from defeat. Actually, the uninebriated man tended to score more often with the ladies, particularly since he no longer used terms like ‘score’ to describe engaging a woman sufficiently that she was happy to go out with him.

Since Delmont thought so little of the future, time mattered not in deciding when a decision needed to be made. He sometimes allowed himself to visualize circumstances, such as being in a burning building or lopping off a fingertip, when decisions needed to be made quickly or face the consequences. Yet even then he could not see why promptness carried any more weight than steadfast optimism that all would work out for the best. Give time time and all that. Theoretically and philosophically, that made more sense to him than responding in a state of urgency. All the same, allowing things to work out for the best meant being rather cavalier in choosing what to do or resulted in opportunities lost.

Perhaps it depended on the importance one presumed any given decision had in the scheme of things. What was that about minor choices being made without the least scrutiny? So many impulses and trivialities needed to be dealt with. The majority were dealt with peremptorily due to the lack of importance attached to any one of them. The things that gave one pause caused the gears to begin to grind into action assessing the situation and reaching a conclusion.

Strangely enough, seeing the woman brought back a memory Delmont had of coming across the story of the crying philosopher. He couldn’t recall now why Heraclitus was known for crying. He did remember the wisdom that was at the center of the ancient Greek’s way of thinking. No one ever steps into the same river more than once.

Remembering that made Delmont realize it didn’t matter if he had ever known her or not. At this moment, they were two different people than when they had met before if they had met before. If they had known each other … what?

He figured he had another fifteen minutes to kill until his phone would be ready. Why not spend at least part of that time sidling up to the woman and making his presence known. Besides, with all that had been happening recently, being shot down attempting to escort a lady around a street festival in Winnemucca hardly seemed to be the kind of rejection that could deflate his ego any further.

Circumstances made it easier for Delmont to say something to the woman once he approached her. She seemed to be in line to purchase food from one of the vendors. No one was behind her. Before it was her turn to order he pardoned himself and asked her if she had any recommendations from the menu.

She turned to face him and he immediately knew who she was. The fast smile and embrace meant she knew him as well. Of all the places to run into each other. Then again, the festival attracted folks from around the region. It was a prized item on the calendar in a region that could bore the hell out of the dullest people. Finding her proved he was heading in the right direction after all.

Before they could say much of anything, the woman from the truck stop came running up. She looked a bit put off by the competition when she stuck her hand out with Delmont’s fully charged phone. He politely accepted it and asked her to stay a minute. Then Delmont Thomas turned to Ariana Delgado’s wife and wished her well. No, he might stop by some time he told her, but the purpose of this trip was not to see them. Not this time. And with that, he asked the young woman from the truck stop if she needed a ride anywhere. She said yes and that cinched the deal. Delmont was already feeling the serenity of a life set on cruise control.

They made their way through the crowd back to the Eldorado. As they approached, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood. It looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside the first. One crow squawked. Both flew away. The two strangers followed the crows with their eyes until the birds disappeared, looked at each other, and got in the Eldorado. Now there was only one way to go with five bars, a full battery, and nothing to blame anyone about.

***

Bear Kosik’s Remaking Democracy in America was published in November 2018 by Stairway Press. He has authored science fiction novels (four to date), plays (six produced in Manhattan since 2016), and screenplays (over fifteen laurels from competitions). Bear’s fiction, poetry, essays, and photos have been published by Third Flatiron Press, River & South Review, Calliope, Windmill, Weasel Press, opednews.com, and others.

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