Didn’t help that Louis - Gods bless him - was all decked out like he was fresh from the jazz joint in a beat-up snazz suit and green fedora with cigarettes stuck in the band. He always had those damn cigarettes shoved in there like the press photographer in a Bogart noir. Didn’t help that I had ripped jeans and mussed blond hair and was street-skinny, like a cheap angel of the lanes bestowing miracles by the hour.
‘What brings you here, boys?’ That’s what one of the big guys says to him, and let's not forget that Louis is dark dark dark and you can see Mayan pyramids in his cheekbones, and these guys were moonshine brewers like you get out here with their terrible fucking fear of the dark.
‘Uh…I work for a paper.’ Tryin' to keep that cigar-smoke voicebox of his nice and smooth and easy.
‘Oh? There a story in these parts?’ A couple whiskeys slid over the sticky toffee bar to us. Some hulker in a shady corner mutters something as Louis pays up and the others around him chuckle like their mouths are full of gravel, and I start to hear banjo music in my head.
'He gone fishin.' One grizzled guy with a grey beard like a big smokey tongue flopping down from his lips nods at me. 'Caught a pretty one.'
And I hear the word ‘faggot’ and that's when I start praying, Oh sweet and holy Jesus let us get the fuck out of here before we get torn in two down by the river somewhere. I'll give you kind deeds and clothes for the needy and Oh holy mother of God, I'll find you some real gigantic fresh red roses, you know, the ones you like and Oh Saint Jude who watches over lost causes I'll take out that ad in the paper for you, just get us outta here or make us fireproof.
'This?' Louis looks at me like he's never seen me before. 'Stupid kid was tryin' to jump the trains. Like the old hobos.'
'Lose your life that way, son.' One of the werebears says, and the others start nodding and talking, remember when so-and-so stopped off at the railroad shack and when the train pulled up they saw something between the carriages and God above there was a leg caught up in there.
Louis shakes his head like I'm a dumb dog. 'Right? Coulda found himself landing both sides of the state,' and because these lumberdicks are rough and tumble types he looks like he's gonna cuff me round the head for a second but I see him think the better of it because let's not forget in this unbreathable place that Louis is dark dark dark.
'Huh, that's a bunch of starry-eyed crap, hopping the trains these days. You runnin' away from something?' Same guy looks me over intently, like he's trying to figure out if they need to turn me in. This place looks like it still has Wanted posters up on the walls and I'm busy winging sweet nothings up to the vaulted ceiling above this one and its golden inhabitants.
'Nossir, trying to find a job in the city, where's he's goin'.' They look up-and-down at my torn jeans and laugh.
'And you, paperboy?'
Lou shrugs like he isn't sweating blood right now. ‘Just passing through. Gotta be back in the office Monday.'
We downed our gulping whiskeys that could fireball the germs off your lips and backed out of the joint slowly, like it was full of wolves who’d leap if you moved too quick. Soon as we were out the door we whirled our bootheels away down the dust track back to the car, shrieking the banjo duel music at each other. Louis jammed it into first and pulled away from that Ol’ Boy freak circus fast as the wheels would turn. Picked up an amber bottle at some no-hope trailer and blazed out into the desolate desert road.
Hit an old gas station, looming out of the darkness all squat and skeletal. Parked up and rolled a special smoke and sat watching the stars. There’s really no light out there, see, it’s like the nicotine yellow stained sky you know in the city just peels away, and there’s all this universe underneath it. It was like when you see reflections in a lake or a puddle and wonder if you could fall through it into the reflection world. I turned my head to watch Louis all strung out along the sand like a big cat.
I believe I said something nonsensical and beautiful about the universe and the microscope of God out here and the stars being our atom-selves. He shook his head and said:
‘You know, if it had come down to pig-squealing time, I just want you to know that I woulda gone first.’
‘What the fuck, Lou?’
He turned, and in that totally unselfconscious way he had of touching other beings he stroked my hair and my star-stoned face.
‘Because I love you, man, you’re my best friend.’
I thought about this a moment and said:
'But I woulda seen what was coming, I mean, thank you for your consideration and all but...No, no...That wouldn't have helped me at all.'
At some point in that long galaxy gaze we passed out. Comes to something beautiful when you wake up in an old petrol station in the arms of your best friend still wearing his green fedora. The rest of the way we played I Spy and the sand and the scrub and the sky all began with the same S.
Written by: Natty Mancini
Photograph by: Daniel Charles Ross