Anyone wants to see what I’ve been slaving away at instead of drawing comics the last year, here’s a peek. Like it? Check out the other stuff I’ve written.
Fragment of c.22 “The oldest trick in the valley” from Magnetic Water and Worms
Ronny Dossantos blamed herself. She could’ve run the Congregation’s whole water supply if she’d been braver. She could’ve organized Yolanda, for all she knew. Was the student Jerry losing interest in her while she paced and plotted all day? Had he ever been interested in her? A stone’s throw, just one of their obscene nightlights knocked out and waiting for repairs, would’ve afforded her enough darkness to carry out a one-woman night raid. Let Dana pursue her projects.
Now it was too late. Her parents were putting up with the religious bullshit and letting their town fall apart while the water situation got worse and worse. She snapped the lapels of her jacket.
Now was the time to breathe, to stop obsessing. San Juan road was not illuminated at night, and its overflow of strawberries had brought her old volunteer friend Dudu back to town. Ronny didn’t want to discourage Jerry, so she went to talk to him without Dudu. She circled the house and found Jerry in the backyard shucking and sorting beans.
–You still workin, Jerry?
–Well, there’s a lot to do. For some time now he’d almost constantly been thirsty for her kisses, but no matter, for his education had given him no game. She could tell all these things without words. –Your brother just brought a ton of water by, so I figure I should finish with these beans before we have to help cook or clean something.
–We should just give the water to miss Zoe. Do you know if she’s here?
Jerry nodded. –She’s okay. She needs to drink lotsa water.
–Tonight we’re gonna do something really special. That got his attention. –What?
–The oldest trick in the valley. You got any money?
–Well, no … he protested with shame in his almost-black eyes.
–Me neither. That’s why we gotta do it.
–The oldest trick in the valley.
–Yeah. You up to it?
–Are we gonna get hurt?
–Why would I let you get hurt? We needa get you some black clothes.
Night came and Ronny and Jerry silently enjoyed each other’s company on the saddles of two stationary bikes, one powering the water cooker and one spinning the clothes washer. Ester sighed as she went about her chores, too close to being truly, undramatically, irreligiously, disloyally, simply out of water. There was living on the thin grassblade that wore the fabric of her community, and then there was bathing once a month while dying of thirst. She decided to use Alfie’s mysterious water donation for washing before Jerry Dass from cool idle Hanuman City took them for a tribe of ragamuffins.
They ate and cleaned up. Dossantos now spoke to Jerry like a family member, like a son, while Alfie inscrutably observed. Jerry tried not to be greedy or out of station, but he couldn’t contain his happiness at being part of a family.
Wats glowed red in the distance ahead of them as they walked briskly in the silent night down the road to the edge of highway 152. Ronny withdrew a small solar flashlight from her pocket and turned it on, shining it slightly left down the road. Immediately a car rumbled heavily
over the gravel, no headlamps, and as it approached the night’s slumber was broken by the car’s horn. At two hundred years old, it was the one antique mechanical device in the valley that had no value in an antiques store, and it was the one mechanical device in the valley that couldn’t decay with age. When the driver beat the horn, a series of stops and tubes played the first four bars of La Cucaracha. Ronny led Jerry to the car as it stopped and they got in.
The driver turned the dome light on and looked back at them from the front seat. –Fuckin finally, ey! I been waiting here like a half hour!
–I said when the moon was in the south!
–Yeah well, he adjusted the straight brim on his ballcap and turned the dome light off just as Jerry noticed the word RAZA tattooed politely in cursive behind his ear, –you needa get a clock and learn that that means fuckin ten thirty, or whatever. This your friend?
–This is Jerry, he’s cool.
–Oh he’s cool, but I hope he’s fast. What’s up, Jerry. Dudu.
–Dudu? Nice to meet you.
–Jerry, Ronny murmured, –you’re cutting off my circulation. What’s wrong?
–Oh, nothing. I’ve only ever rode in a bus once.
–Ha ha ha! Slow down, he’s from Hanuman.
–Hey, I love Hare Krishna and all that shit. Dudu stopped at a sign and then peeled out of the turn, spinning the tires in the gravel, headlamps still off. He reached over into the passenger seat and tossed two big plastic bags at Jerry. He caught one and looked inside, finding it full of green plastic berry baskets. The night air came in the open windows cool and scented with fruit.
–So what’s the oldest trick in the valley?
–What’s what? the driver piped.
Ronny patted Jerry’s knee. –It’s like this. Dudu’s gonna drop us off in the strawberry field right up there. We’re gonna pick as many as we can. He’ll have the hood up like there’s somethin wrong with the car,
–There’s a light under the hood, added Dudu. –Right. When the light goes out and then comes back on, we duck in the nearest ditch. That means a car’s come out on the road. If the car passes, we keep picking our way back to the car. If the car stops, it could be a cop or a farmer or a damn good Samaritan.
–So I’ll have the headlights on then, too, Dudu explained, –if I turn them down to the parking lights, that means fuckin run. Run the way the car came, so you get behind him and you can cross the road when he leaves, cause it’s a fuckin cop. Got it?
–Got it, Jerry raised his voice over the noise of the road.
–Like I said, Ronny, we still split fifty-fifty. You guys gotta figure out how you share your half. So what, you’re married?
–No! sniffed Ronny.
–Don’t get married, Jerry!
They cruised down San Juan road toward Wats, still four kilometers or so out. –Roads’re weird, when you think about it, mused Jerry.
–They suck! Ronny agreed, –once everyone has a car and the whole world’s covered in roads, that basically means anyone who doesn’t drive doesn’t have any rights. You can’t just walk where you need to, cause you might get hit by a car! It’s just a way to box us in.
–Yeah. And it cuts people off from their connection to nature.
–You said it, man, drawled Dudu, –we’re in a hurry tonight, and it’s not natural.
–So … are you from Blackbird, too? Jerry asked the driver, who laughed.
–We’re old friends, said Ronny. –His family worked in Blackbird my whole life. They’d come in with the farming volunteers, but my parents paid them with serious food, not like the volunteers.
–Then they made my brothers and me go to high school and we all got kicked out! Alright, shut up. Yup. This’s all Griscoll’s, homie. Here’s the spot.
Dudu pulled over into the driveway of a small home in the middle of the great dark fields, turned on his headlamps as he circled, and then reentered the road, a show of normalcy for any nearby car. They drove another kilometer back the way they came, and the car came to rest pointing back toward Blackbird, toward the hills and safety.
Ronny and Jerry put their hoods on and raced out into the field. They followed the tractor road with deep ditches on either side of it, then stepped over into the rows. This time of year they were nice and dry, and as usual hadn’t been irrigated since broad daylight.
–How do we know they’re good?
–You just hafta sorta pinch and pull. If it doesn’t come, it’s probably not ready. Just do your best. Okay, you do that row and I’ll do this one.
They stooped and picked as fast as they could. As any strawberry picker can tell, after about two minutes of hurrying their backs began to feel like a single sheet of bone violently bending in half. They went southward toward where the ditch ended and the road broke into their field, as to be nearer the next ditch beyond it. Ronny remembered to raise her head just in time to see the star hanging above Dudu’s headlights blink heavily. –Go! She called at Jerry in the wide-open night. They ran and huddled into the ditch, watched the car appear, pass and disappear, and leapt out just as the stagnant water and chemicals drove them to either rise or fall. They pinched and pulled more. Ronny’s baskets got full first. She gave her bag to Jerry and they pinched and pulled together until their bags were both judged full enough to put the berries in danger of squishing. Less than ten minutes had elapsed. Exhilirated, they ran back toward the road.
The hood lamp blinked again. Jerry and Ronny saw the headlights coming. They were a hundred meters from the car, six hundred from the nearest ditch that didn’t show its face or length to the road. It was too dark to judge the best darkness. Where could they go? Ronny led them against the headlights, away from the car, hoping to find another ditch behind another tractor road like they’d found on the opposite end of the field. Jerry looked behind him as he leapt between the rows, crushed deep footprints into their sides and tangled his moccasins in berry stems.
The highbeam headlamps blinked out for a second, replaced by the lowbeams. He and Ronny hit the ground and let the car pass them as it stopped behind Dudu. It was a big fuel-burning truck with a lift kit and huge tires, photographic and radar equipment on top beneath the siren lamps, and a great violent cow catcher on the front. As it stopped Ronny could read the badge along its fender in the vehicle’s own light. It was the eagle with a key in one talon and an assault rifle in the other, the Corrections Corporation bird.
The private cop climbed out of his truck, wrist resting on his weapon, and approached dark diminutive Dudu. –Everything okay?
–I got a weird noise and a smell, said Dudu carefully, –just stopped to check it out. I wanna see if it’s serious before I get on the road to Los Baños.
–See any leaks? Turn it on.
–I wanna look at the belts,
–Turn it on, the private cop ordered him. Dudu leaned into the open driver’s doorway and pressed the starter button, and the car came to life.
–Why don’t you turn on your Omniserve and send a ping for help?
–I got the car used!
–You can buy a new Omniserve subscription. Dudu threw up his hands. –I’m Mex!
Ronny started to crawl over the strawberry mounds and Jerry followed. There were twenty, maybe fifteen left before the far ditch.
–Look, the beefy round-headed red-faced crewcut cop coughed, –I’m not authorized to give any help on this road, so I can’t call this in for you. But I can’t just leave a suspicious site like this either, cause I already logged the stop. So you gotta leave or call for help.
–It’s good, I’ll leave.
–You have anyone with you?
–No big family to bring with to Los Baños?
–I’m gonna be workin.
The cop looked around himself, stepped over to the roadside ditch and looked in. His flashlight came on, facing downward, and Ronny saw it just as she slid into the far slimy ditch, dragging Jerry with, safe into darkness. The flashlight beam traced up the roadside ditch and then went dark. –Alright. Move along.
The cop waited for Dudu to take off, so they had to wait until he was down the road, then wait for the cop, then wait out another car, until they started walking down the road. They slunk silently past isolated houses on the north side of the road, along maíz stalks and coyote brush, and ran desperately through the open parts. Finally a pair of parking lamps came toward them and the Cucaracha sounded.
–Shit, that was close, uh? laughed Dudu. –My whole fuckin family worked, legit worked, that field. My fuckin grampa couldn’t get any medical coverage for his lung damage workin those fuckin fields. Fuckin choked in his sleep, whatta you call it, suffocated from that shit.
–I knew you’d come back, Ronny assured him, –here’s your half.
–Alright then. No sellin them at the car dealerships, that’s my turf.
–We’re gonna sell them at our market, dummy.
–They’re not biologic.
–Seems like people stopped caring this season.
The submarine black road was clear around the invisible car, and behind them Wats glowed like an electrified strawberry. Jerry was nearly hyperventilating in the back seat. Rami had referred to this as direct action. Had he relieved her when he said he wasn’t planning on it?
–The cop is like, I’m not authorized to help people on this road, yknow, just other roads. Like, why’d you stop then? Asshole. Probly onnis way out to the labor camp to get some.
–Get some? Jerry asked. He couldn’t tell if Dudu were angry or funny, and it made him a little uneasy. –Yeah, replied Ronny reluctantly.
Dudu explained as he pulled left onto Casserly road toward Blackbird: –When you live in those camps you’re just an animal. My whole family worked for Griscoll’s. They come whenever they want, bring whoever they want with, and just say time to fuck. They give you heroin so you can’t do nothing, and they get what they want. Everyone, Jerry! The foremen, the bosses, the truck drivers. And if you try to stoppem, they can just beat the shit outta you. Cause they know there’s a million just like you comin up from down there for a chance to work for two bucks an hour. What’s a house in Wats cost now? Two million? Two bucks an hour. That’s why we stick together. We should steal all their shit. Alright, you’re home.
Ronny opened the door and they got out of the incognito car onto the plaza of home. –Next time, Dudu. They walked past Jim and Jenny’s dome, where the basement light was still on, through a carefully-tended field now flattened, finished for the year, until Dossantos’ house was near. –I’m gonna put these in my room, wait for me at the tree.
His head full of the images, smells and sensations of that fast, violent adventure, Jerry somehow found himself sitting on the smooth bark of the oak, facing the south and the waxing gibbous moon that hung just out of Virgo’s reach. He waited eagerly for Ronny to come. It occurred to him that this special time together, just the two of them, may be like what in the lurid novels of the twentieth century, in desperate exaltation of the individual, was termed a date.
Ronny appeared with a large afghan folded in half. She hopped up on the bough, wrapped them both in the thick heavy grass-smelling fabric, and snuggled up with him. –Wasn’t that fun?
Look at the moon! We were barely gone an hour.
–I don’t think I’ll ever get used to riding in a car.