Jan woke up to the scratchy tickle of a tumbleweed rolling over her face. It was a strange sensation. Like she was trapped in some underworld where scribbly creatures danced over dead bodies. When she opened her eyes, she saw a solid block of gray—a blank nothingness. But then she turned her head and saw she lay in the middle of a country field. The gray above was only the overcast sky. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
Temples pulsing, Jan stood and took a proper look around. A few miles ahead, a blacktop road ribboned as far as the eye could see, which, to be specific, was down into the forest on one end, and up into the hills on the other. In the distance hummed a two-stroke chainsaw. When Jan pulled out her phone, it was a black mirror reflecting a blurred face. Dead battery. Again.
Jan thrust her phone into her pocket and squinted. With the overcast, it was impossible to make out smokefire. Wolfe could be anywhere by now. The chainsaw—was that him? Snapping on rubbery gum sour from her own breath, Jan made the long trek to the road. Then she had to pick a direction: toward the forest or the hills. Jan headed toward the hills.
Huh…head for the hills…that was a thing, right? A saying that was said. A doing that was done. A warning, maybe. The hills were supposed to be a sanctuary, safe from the danger below. But as Jan trudged alongside the road, she felt nothing. No danger, no motivation. Maybe she should just lay down on the cool blacktop and wait for a semi-truck to crunch her bones like a mid-afternoon snack.
At this thought, a low grumble caught Jan’s attention. A truck. Not a semi, but an old blue Ford F-150, about a mile away, coming from the hills. As the truck came closer, something flickered in Jan’s stomach. A kindling desire. Not to throw herself in front of the truck, as she had expected, but to fix up this aging beauty. The flaked and faded paint, the grating cough, spoke of misuse, or at the very least, neglect. For a moment, her fingers itched to tinker under the hood, under the carriage. Then the feeling passed, and instead, Jan stepped closer to the road, jerking out her thumb.
With a whine and a sputter, the truck pulled over. The driver, a pale, grizzled man with a beer gut, leaned across the passenger seat and eyed her through the open window.
“Could I catch a ride?” Jan asked when he hadn’t said anything for a while.
Jan shrugged. “Wherever you’re going.”
The man frowned, the lines in his forehead deepening into their own frowns. So many frowns…unexpectedly, they made Jan smile. The man shoved the door open and grunted. An invitation. Jan climbed into the stench of stale French fries and tobacco.
She stuck out her hand. “Jan.”
“Chuck.” But the man didn’t take her hand, just stared at her brown arm. “You don’t look like no Jan.”
“It’s short for Janani.”
Chuck’s eyes narrowed further. “You look like a Muslim…but you don’t look like a Muslim,” he mumbled under his breath, his words cautious, mystified.
It was a strange way to put it, but Jan understood. She wasn’t, in fact, Muslim (or a follower of any religion, for that matter). But she knew that folks around here often used “Muslim” as a catchall term for brown people who weren’t Mexican (which, itself, was a catchall term for all Latinos). She also knew that while she looked Middle Eastern or South Asian, her cropped hair, oversized Johnny Cash t-shirt, and combat boots didn’t reconcile with Chuck’s image of people from such places. But she didn’t feel resentful about this, not anymore.
“I look like myself,” she said, shrugging.
Chuck gave a slight nod, uncertainty in his eyes, and revved the engine. With a sickly gurgle, the truck chugged off toward the forest.
Jan stared out the window at the passing meadows, listening to the truck’s aches and ailments. Was air trapped in the coolant system? Could a new head gasket be in order? Once again, her hands craved to wrap around some grimy old bolt, to twist with clear energy and unscrew it, fastening in its place a shiny new component. She missed the surefooted feel of wrenches, of grease, the things that fixed and facilitated.
Grease…something to lubricate the wheels, set them spinning, set energy flowing…like gin. Oh, it had only taken minutes for her to make this leap. And now that she was thinking of it, she couldn’t stop. Distilled juniper berries—didn’t that sound romantic? Like the very essence of nature’s whimsy? Iced, pale gold liquid lubricant down her parched throat…the cool, smooth, pineyness of it…the numbing easing flowing breezing—
But no. Gin was how she’d gotten into this mess. Jan pulled out her phone again, glancing around as though a car charger might appear, but the cigarette lighter socket was empty. Jan pocketed her phone and slumped back, wondering what Wolfe was doing right now. She didn’t even know what time it was…the dashboard didn’t have a clock. Maybe she could ask Chuck? But he seemed to be brewing in his own thoughts, chewing at his lip like a baby at a teether. No, this wasn’t the right time to bother him.
The time didn’t matter, anyway; whatever the time, Jan would need her phone. Wolfe could be on the move again, or he had already set up camp in some remote corner of nature, doing his thing. Posting Instagram photos of clues, smoke signals pluming up from landmarks, so that all his followers in the region could solve the puzzle. So that they could seek out his location for the exclusive hip-hippie-hipster fest. Jan had been present for several of these glampground parties…damp ground, amp ground…hemp ground, temp ground…stomping grounds, romping grounds…fluid and dizzy with small-batch craft gin as Wolfe curated musical journeys, performing under strings of vintage bulbs for fans too cool to scream.
After a while, Jan had tired of these parties, but not of the gin. She enjoyed Wolfe more as a philosophical traveling companion than as a performer in character in his wolf mask. So Jan had learned to slip away during the parties, just after helping Wolfe set up the sound equipment. She’d secure a bottle of gin, and then she would wander. But these wanderings only amplified the lost-ness within her.
The more she wandered, the more she drank. Sometimes she’d find herself waking up on a park bench, unsure of how she got there. Other times, she’d befriend some cows out to graze and stare into their big eyes, their steady, unblinking dream-eyes, and try to catch sight of a soul. Wherever she was, all it took was a call, and Wolfe would pick her up. Or, if she was close, he’d text her his location, a pin on a map. Then they’d find the nearest diner and gorge themselves (on Wolfe’s tab, of course). But lately, Wolfe hadn’t been as accepting of Jan’s state of inebriation. She was way past having fun, he said. She had a problem. The last few times Jan had woken up somewhere random with a dead phone, she’d had to pick a direction and find her way to the nearest store that would let her charge it. Once, she’d even used an old relic—a payphone. And this time they were so far out from town, it could’ve have taken days for Jan to reach civilization on foot if she hadn’t found her way back to the road. The hardest part of getting lost was picking the right direction. These days, though, any choice seemed pointless.
Chuck threw Jan a furtive look. Once, twice. Jan ignored him, figuring he’d say something if he really wanted to. At last, he did.
“You a…a dyke?” The word “dyke” was uttered hesitantly, delicately, in case he wasn’t using it right.
Jan turned to Chuck in surprise. That was all she could muster, surprise. At one time she might have been offended by the word, or by the assumption; at one time she might have erupted into a feminist rant, a progressive diatribe. Not so this time. Jan merely raised her eyebrows, unresponsive. But she realized that Chuck must’ve been stewing on this question since he’d picked her up.
“I mean…” Chuck said, backtracking, “…with that haircut, those clothes, I wondered…you can’t tell with girls these days…”
But Jan gave up nothing, neither confirming nor denying.
“If you are, I don’t approve, mind you—I’m a good Christian man,” Chuck said. “But as a good Christian man, I do feel dutybound, when seeing a young woman alone on the side of the road, to deliver her to safety.”
Unexpected tears sprang into Jan’s eyes. Why this response to a stranger, some random redneck? Blinking them back, Jan offered a slight nod.
“So where’s your family from?” Chuck asked. “Where do they live?”
Jan didn’t answer.
Chuck switched to yes-or-no questions. “Is your family alive? They live around here?”
Jan nodded yes; she shook her head no. The questions continued. Somehow, he’d gathered from this series of infinitesimal head movements that Jan had fallen out with her family, dropped out of college, and run away with friends to drive across the country, doing God knows what. Well, Jan thought, her friends knew what. It was Jan who didn’t know what she was doing.
Chuck, after hitting a dead end with his questions, retreated into silence. Jan watched him out of the corner of her eye; he seemed to be trying to piece something together. Probably her. The lip-chewing resumed. Maybe Chuck was struggling with what would make him the better Christian: helping or shunning. There was plenty of both in the Bible.
Suddenly, Chuck turned the truck onto a dirt road Jan hadn’t noticed coming up.
“Gas stop,” he explained. Sure enough, about a mile out, an unlikely gas station and minimart beckoned like an illusory oasis; some horses grazed in a nearby pasture. As he filled up, Chuck left the key in the ignition and waddled into the minimart.
Jan stared at the key. It felt like the answer to something, but she wasn’t sure what. She was still staring at it when the hose was yanked from the gas tank and the driver’s door opened. Softening, Jan felt compelled to ask Chuck something about himself. But when she looked up from the key to form her question, it wasn’t Chuck getting into the driver’s seat.
Jan swallowed her gum in shock. A skinny young man grinned at her with eerily perfect teeth.
He winked. “Lucky me. Looks like I get two rides for the price of one.”
Then he turned the key in the ignition.
Instead of lunging for the door, Jan closed her eyes with resignation and leaned back into the headrest, inhaling the musty scent of French fries. Her stomach rumbled, and it surprised her that she could still be hungry at a time like this. But while she anticipated the gasping groan of the engine, the truck would not start. Jan opened her eyes. The man beside her cursed, trying once, twice, thrice to get the motor running. Nothing.
And then a two-pronged clicking, and the barrel of a revolver pointing, and the good-teeth man raising his hands like it was part of some dance choreography. Flinging the door open, Chuck jerked the man out by the collar, pointing the gun at his head. The scent of urine filled the air. Then Chuck shoved Mr. Toothsome to the ground with a warning, and, at a leisurely pace, climbed into the truck.
Grunting, Chuck holstered his piece and sifted through the plastic bag slung from his arm. Jan looked past him out the window at Pearly Whites, who was half-walking, half-running down to the pasture across the way, jumping on one of the horses. A chestnut mare. Jan shook her head, dazed, as the man galloped off, probably into the sunset.
Without a word, Chuck passed Jan a wilting sandwich and water bottle, as casual as if he brandished guns at people every day. And maybe he did. Jan had never liked the idea of guns, so abundant and accessible, but the weapon seemed to have saved her this time. Though she hadn’t even tried to save herself. Unnerved, Jan mumbled her thanks and unwrapped the sandwich. She had barely bit into it when Chuck finished his own and reached behind the seat for a glass jug of some coppery liquid. Jan stared, the bite going dry in her mouth. Whiskey. Not quite gin, but it would do. Oh, it would do just fine. Swallowing, she licked her cracked lips.
“Could…could I have some?” she asked. “Please? Just a little.”
Chuck gave her a long, hard look. Then he got out of the truck. “You’re driving.”
There was nothing more to say. Chuck took the whiskey with him to the passenger seat, cradling the jug like a baby at his breast. In the driver’s seat, Jan bit her tongue to staunch the craving. She glugged down the full bottle of water and reached for the keys, her fingers pausing in midair before balling into a fist. Then she got out of the truck.
Feeling Chuck’s eyes on her back, Jan entered the minimart, digging in her pockets for a crumpled $10 bill—the last of her cash. The 375mL bottle of Seagram’s gin for $8.99 glimmered like a cheap hooker. But Jan forced her gaze to a different bottle in the next aisle. She checked out at the counter, the cashier’s bloodshot eyes boring into her, mouth working as though chewing cud.
Back at the truck, Jan clutched the bottle of starter fluid and set to work spraying into the engine intake. She hoped this would work as a stop-gap measure…if not, she could probably diagnose the problem, but getting the parts would be a whole other bag of tricks. Luckily, she managed to get the motor running.
With a tingle of satisfaction at this small success, Jan peeled away down the road, the steering wheel sturdy and sticky under her grip. She’d cranked down the driver’s window, and now a cool breeze rifled her hair. Chuck was staring at her, she could tell, but he said nothing about the oiling up of his truck. He did offer her a brownie, though. Jan accepted. Driving one-handed made her feel energized for some reason, focused…like hopping on one foot. And the brownie was surprisingly fresh for minimart fare. She said as much.
“That ain’t from no minimart. I brought it from home,” Chuck said. “My freezer’s chock-full of brownies. My wife set them to freeze right after baking them fresh. I defrost one a day in the oven.”
This seemed to Jan like the efficient solution of a busy yet nurturing woman, and she thought of her own mother. Who was neither.
Jan had always been a bit embarrassed by this frivolous woman who sat at home watching soap operas and gossiping on the phone while paying housekeepers and nannies to keep herself redundant…with her husband’s money, of course. Jan’s mother had a knack for criticizing others without ever making any meaningful efforts of her own. And Jan was often the choice target for this criticism. It fueled her feminism, really. Her desire to do something, to be more. But in college, despite all the women’s studies and gender & sexual identity and American sociology classes, she was no closer to knowing what she wanted to do to change the world, leading to a full-on quarter-life crisis. When her parents had learned she’d dropped out, a nasty argument erupted, seething disappointments and resentments bubbling over until Jan accidentally came out, or rather, blurted out, to her parents. And now she had no family. Her parents had even forbidden her younger sister from all contact with her.
“Do you have any kids?” Jan asked, swallowing the last of the velvety brownie.
Chuck was silent for a moment. Then he snorted. “Got a daughter who left town to try and become an actress. In Hollywood.”
Jan, catching his condescension, felt a bit of her old fire. “Good for her. That’s great she has so much purpose, so much agency, as a young woman. You should be proud she’s pursuing her ambition.” Jan did not mention she privately thought that Hollywood was a graveyard of broken dreams for unreasonably gorgeous servers. RIP, hopes of landing a lead female role, much less one for Oscarbait that passed the Bechdel test. Hello, Gonorrhea PSA.
Chuck snorted again, this time at Jan’s support. “Women belong at home,” he said, “as the heart of the family. Jobs are fine before you meet a man, but then you’ve got to set your priorities straight and settle down. My daughter’s pushing 35 and still unmarried, still chasing roles. She’s let more than a few nice young men slip through her fingers. She won’t get many more chances.”
Jan bristled, knuckles tightening over the steering wheel, though she knew she shouldn’t let herself be provoked by a stranger. Maybe it was the sugar high from the brownie, or maybe it was the fact that, thanks to Chuck, she had narrowly escaped a potentially traumatic experience, but Jan felt like fighting for something. Though she didn’t want to fight Chuck.
“These days, things are different,” she said in a neutral tone. She cited the evidence. Both parents should be the heart of the family, regardless of their sex; both should have equal roles. And there were plenty of single-parent homes where there was no choice in the matter. “Everybody has to be the heart.”
“Men and women have always had equal roles,” Chuck said, fixating on this part of her argument. “Different, but equal.”
The way he said it sounded too close to separate-but-equal for Jan’s comfort. She rolled her eyes as Chuck mansplained the importance of traditional gender roles in creating a stable and loving home, in drawing clear lines, no blurry gray areas from which confusion could spring to drive children toward fringy liberal labels. “Women have it in their bones to nurture, to raise children and care for their husbands while keeping a clean home,” he said. “Men have it in their blood to support, to provide resources for their children and wives while keeping a safe home.”
“Oh, is that so?” Jan asked with exaggerated interest.
“Sure, take me, for instance. I’m Mr. Fixit, making repairs to the house and cars, scaring off intruders with a wave of my gun.”
How many intruders could there have been? Jan wondered.
“In fact, I still mail a check to my daughter every Christmas. Puts me at ease, to know she’s taken care of.”
“Sure, you have your role,” Jan said. “But roles can be reversed. Or shared. Sometimes one person has to fill all the roles.”
She received no response. Glancing over, she saw Chuck’s eyes fog up before he turned toward the window. Was he worrying about his daughter? Nobody was worrying about Jan, that was for sure. But she tried not to think about this.
“What about your wife?” she asked instead. “Doesn’t she work or have some other ambition outside the home?
Chuck turned slowly from the window. “There wasn’t nothing in the world more important to her than family,” he said. “Nothing. She made our house a home…no, not a home…a heart. She made the house a living thing, honest-to god. Our home, our hearty-home, pumped the family with lifeblood. Soulnutrients. Lovebreaths. That was her doing. That was her choice.”
Jan blinked, thrown off guard.
“She spent two weeks baking and freezing 100 dozen brownies for me because they’re my favorite,” Chuck said. “Because she couldn’t bear the thought of me never eating them again after she died.”
He looked at Jan. “And then the cancer took her.”
Jan swerved. A brown blur, must have been a deer, had shot out of the woods in front of the road, and it happened so fast, and the sharp turn of the wheel was more than the clankety truck could handle, and something came unhinged, friction was lost, metal scraped metal, sparks flew, and before Jan knew it the truck was out of her control as it careened straight into the woods.
Bracing herself, she absorbed the juddering, the rumbling, as the truck off-roaded— then, the thunderous jolt of impact. A blackness descended. Jan submitted, accepting this was the end…but then she opened her eyes to see Chuck’s arm, fleshy and spotted, stretched out in front her. A parental knee-jerk response, the only reason her head hadn’t smashed into the windshield, because these ancient seatbelts were worthless. She looked beyond his arm to see smoke curling up from the crunched hood of the truck, which had chomped into a pine tree. Looking down, Jan was surprised to find that she had wet herself, until she followed the liquid to the overturned bottle of whiskey in Chuck’s lap. Her sense of smell suddenly returned, and the alcohol felt sharp on her nostrils, mixed with the acrid smoke and burnt rubber.
Chuck slowly pulled his arm away, his whole body shaking. Jan, on the other hand, remained still. She thought for a moment that she might be paralyzed, but then, all at once, came hot, red pain. Jan hadn’t felt much of anything, really, for so long. This deluge of heat felt almost miraculous. Praise Jesus.
Had Chuck really said lovebreaths? The thought struck Jan suddenly, along with the urge to giggle. Quickly quenched by sadness as she remembered the last thing he had said. She looked at him now. He was still trembling, eyes in a different world. Jan sucked in a sharp breath, blew it out. She did this several times. At some point, she wasn’t sure when, the throbbing pain, the heat, faded into a quiet ache. A manageable soreness. She tested her limbs, her neck, and found to her relief that she could move just fine.
The truck, though, was different story. She looked again at the mangled hood and shook her head. Poor thing. Wincing, she unbuckled her seatbelt, forced the door open, and stepped gingerly out of the truck. So far so good. When she walked around and pried open Chuck’s door, he wouldn’t budge.
“You ok? Can you step out?” She coaxed and cajoled, growing nervous at his lack of response. “Do you feel any pain? Or are you numb?”
She couldn’t see anything wrong with him, and he didn’t say a word. Finally, she gripped his quivering hand and pulled him out inch by inch. Running her tongue along her teeth, she could taste blood…and a little bit of brownie on her back molar.
Chuck’s arm vibrated violently. Jan had to press her side against his side, her head against his head, to steady him; she had to wrap her arm around his back, his flannel shirt soaked with sweat, and pull his arm around her bony shoulders. Then she walked them forward, bit by bit, through the forest. Jan hadn’t touched a person in so long. And now, half of her body was pressed against another. It felt warm and strange.
Once they were far enough away from the choking smoke of the truck, from any possible combustion, Jan eased them down against the trunk of an oak. She told Chuck to take deep breaths, then inspected him again for injuries, ignoring her own smarting body. Looked like he was just in shock, but you never knew. Jan pulled out her phone, then remembered it was dead.
“Do you have a phone on you?” she asked Chuck. He shook his head no. The rest of his body began to shake less, as though by shaking his head he had corralled and channeled his tremors into a localized area. But now he kept shaking his head, a perpetual no-no-no-no-no.
They sat, backs against the tree, in silence for a while. Soon, Chuck’s head-shaking subsided, and instead, he nodded off, dozing with a steady rhythm of snores. Jan stared ahead at a cluster of pines and thought of his wife. What a feat, a baking spree before death. Jan had heard about the phenomenon of patients rallying just before a terminal illness claimed them. How long ago had she died? Chuck had said his daughter was in Hollywood. Did that mean he lived alone now? It was odd to think Jan wasn’t the only one alone.
The truck. At the thought of the twisted metal, Jan felt a mirrored twisting within her. How could she pay for the wreckage? She’d have to make it up somehow. Despite his reservations, this man had given her a ride, and then trusted her enough to drive, only to have her smash his truck into a tree. She couldn’t leave him both family-less and truck-less. But first they needed to get out of here. Jan thought to get up and head back toward the road, to call out to another car passing by, but Chuck’s sleeping head was now heavy against her shoulder, his gunmetal beard tickling her upper arm. And his soft, rhythmic snores were lulling…
Jan wasn’t sure when she fell asleep, but she jerked awake to the sound of a two-stroke chainsaw. Chuck was awake beside her, looking up at the sky and mumbling something. Praying. The sky had darkened into a dull grayish purple, and the air had chilled.
“You ok? Jan asked when his mumbling faded.
“This morning, I woke up missing my wife more than I could stand. There was no one around. My farm’s so far from town. My daughter didn’t answer my call. So I drove out onto the open road with a bottle of whiskey, daring God to do what he will. I didn’t care what happened, if I rammed into a tree. When I saw you on the side of the road, I thought of my daughter. Up close, of course, I saw you didn’t look nothing like my daughter. But something in your face made me pick you up. You didn’t look like the type of person I should pick up, but I didn’t care no more what I should and shouldn’t do. And it was a comfort to talk to someone, even though you didn’t have much to say. But then…”
Chuck’s voice cracked. “Then I made you drive, and your drove into a tree, and it was my bad thoughts that made you do it, because earlier I’d had that same thought of driving into a tree. The devil used my darkness, don’t you see? He used it to put you in danger, too, and I’m to blame. I’ve been begging forgiveness from the Lord, from my wife who is an angel in heaven. And now I ask for your forgiveness.”
Jan was stunned. “There’s nothing to forgive. If anything, I should ask forgiveness for ruining your truck.
Chuck snorted. “My truck was a piece of shit anyway.”
They were quiet for a bit, stuck in their own mind-muck. Then the chainsaw sounded again, and Jan rose to her feet. It could be Wolfe! And even if it wasn’t, there was someone not too far away who might be able to help them.
Jan was relieved to see Chuck able to stand, albeit a bit shakily. But then he patted himself down, a look of alarm flashing in his eyes.
“Where’s my gun?”
“What do you mean? You don’t have it?” It had definitely still been holstered after the accident. Jan had felt the hard shape poking her hip as she walked him to the tree.
Now, they scrambled around, looking for it. Could the gun have fallen somewhere? Or had someone taken it while they slept? They looked and looked. Nothing. It was gone. And soon, daylight would be gone, too. The sky was deepening into a crush of violet. Which way was which? They had lost their bearings. So they followed the high-pitched snarl of the chainsaw.
When Jan saw Wolfe’s camp, she felt relief like a hug. Chuck’s unease showed; he was naked without his gun.
“Don’t worry,” Jan said. “I know these people.”
The woods had thinned out into a clearing. Below strings of vintage bulbs, a group of twenty-somethings gathered around a stack of branches. They seemed to be building some sort of art piece. The branches were bunched and twined and nailed together, curving to form what looked like a giant bird’s nest. Beyond them, another group was planting saplings, two for each tree they’d cut down.
Wolfe himself stood before the nearby trailer, a vintage Airstream gleaming silver under the lights. Jan called out to him.
Wolfe walked over and scolded Jan in that older-brother way he had. “Where have you been? Why haven’t you answered your phone?”
“Dead,” she said.
He shook his head. “Something could’ve happened to you.”
Jan couldn’t argue with that. Then Wolfe turned to Chuck and introduced himself.
“Thanks for bringing Jan back. Hungry?”
Jan and Chuck looked at each other as Wolfe took Jan’s phone into his trailer to charge. They seemed to agree, without words, that they would wait a while to deal with the truck. When Wolfe returned, he guided them to the pop-up restaurant, picnic tables near a fire-pit kitchen. Two notable chefs from Portland were preparing dinner using ingredients sourced from nearby farms.
“When’s the show?” Jan asked Wolfe.
“Tomorrow night,” he said. “The chefs are fine-tuning their recipes, though. The crew’s testing them tonight so the chefs can make the final touches.”
Jan salivated at the aroma of herbed pheasant roasting nearby. Chuck kept looking around, bewildered, and Jan tried to explain the concept to him as Wolfe left to make more preparations.
“This ain’t no Woodstock,” Chuck said.
“Nope,” Jan said with a small smile. This was more intimate, each component culled for quality and particularity. Too rustic to be luxurious, yet too rarified for the masses. A cosmopolitan shindig in the boondocks.
Wolfe reappeared at a nearby campfire with his guitar and began practicing. The music was folksy, his voice raw and rich. Chuck recognized the song, an old, deep-country ballad sped up.
“Is that what he’s performing tomorrow?” he asked with surprise.
“Yeah, but not alone,” Jan said. “He’ll be accompanied by electric violins and a popular DJ on keyboard and beats.”
Chuck snorted (he was a snorter, Jan noted). “Is this what the liberals call cultural appropriation?”
Jan had to laugh. But she couldn’t help pointing out country music’s roots in African American blues.
“Had to go there, didn’t you?” Chuck shook his head. But he was smiling.
The chefs brought over plates of unparalleled taste—organic, sustainably and humanely raised meat, fresh summer vegetables and herbs, coarse ground spices. Pure, satisfying flavors. Jan told Chuck about the chef’s credentials. Chuck told Jan that the plate tasted like his mama’s cooking on the farm when he was a boy. They enjoyed their meals in silence for a while, listening to Wolfe strum and sing.
“He should play just like that tomorrow,” Chuck said. “No bells and whistles necessary.”
Jan had to agree. When they had finished, Wolfe called them over to the fire and passed them a jug of water. He usually passed around a bottle of wine, but Jan suspected he was purposely keeping alcohol out of her grasp.
Chuck glanced at her Johnny Cash t-shirt. “You a fan?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.
Chuck gave Wolfe a nod, and Wolfe understood, plucking out A Ring of Fire. But as Wolfe began to sing, to Jan’s surprise, Chuck joined in. His voice was deep, gravelly. It carried far, with a soulful timbre and a slight twang. Wolfe stopped singing and kept strumming, letting him take over vocals. Chuck did Johnny justice.
Jan closed her eyes, the heat of the fire on her face, and was back in high school. Peeking into the garage building, where some old, folksy melody played. Her first introduction to Johnny Cash. Inside, the teacher stood by the open hood of a junkyard car, sparks flying as he explained how to remove the corroded bolt. Jan watched, mesmerized. The next day, she signed up for auto shop. She was the only girl in the class, but she didn’t care. Cars and Cash made a unique cocktail that settled her anxiety. The next year, though, when she tried to sign up for advanced auto shop, the class had been discontinued, replaced by computer programming.
Jan opened her eyes. The song had turned into a medley, with Chuck and Wolfe flowing through Cash’s songbook. Though her singing wasn’t very good, Jan joined in. Their entwined voices, the flickering fire, made her feel almost content. Like she belonged. But soon, another noise distracted the trio from their music. Wolfe stopped strumming, and Chuck’s last word, “lonesome” hung in the air like the crescent moon.
They turned around to find a group of men on horseback, emerging from the woods. Jan wondered if they were park rangers. Wolfe’s crew crowded together, murmuring in confusion. Chuck stood abruptly. Then Jan realized one of the horsemen was Mr. Toothsome, from earlier in the day. And he was waving a gun. Was that Chuck’s gun?
Jan and Wolfe jumped to their feet. This all seemed like some strange dream, like Old-Western-meets-Summer-Camp. The men were riding through the camp with large sacks like Santa Claus, except instead of handing out toys, they were snatching things to fill their bags. Pearly Whites grinned, shooting into the sky as his chestnut mare reared up. He rode around, calling for phones and tablets and cash and liquor. When met with resistance, he pistol-whipped one guy, then shot and missed the foot of another, until the crowd rushed to meet his demands. The other horsemen trampled over tents and art, destroying part of the giant nest. Jan saw Chuck clench his fists. The horsemen took a lot. They took food and blankets and even the strings of light, leaving the camp dim in the foreglow. They took microphones and cables. They took anything that would fit in their large sacks. When they finally rode away, hooting with the fervor of unruly youth, Wolfe gathered his crew together. Jan and Chuck pressed in with them.
Nobody was harmed, but people were shaken. They didn’t want to camp here, tonight. They wanted to leave. Forget the show, they said. The man had a gun. It wasn’t safe. And the nearest town was 50 miles away.
“Please, just calm down,” Wolfe said. “It’s safe now. They won’t be back tonight. I’ll call the sheriff. I’ll go into town tomorrow morning to hire some security for the concert.”
It wasn’t enough. People began packing up what was left of their belongings and trundled into their hybrid jeeps, which the horsemen luckily had not noticed, as the vehicles were hidden under camouflage tarp (for a more pleasing natural aesthetic) and obscured by trees. Jan and Chuck remained behind with Wolfe, as did a handful of others. Wolfe posted to social media, informing his fans what had happened.
Jan looked at Chuck. “Need a ride back home?”
But Chuck shook his head. “Wolfe needs us. Most of his crew’s gone because that smiley-mouthed asshole stole my gun. Least I could do is see Wolfe through the show.”
Jan nodded. She had not expected this response from Chuck, but she was relieved by it. Singing around the campfire had been a comfort to her. And although she knew the concert would be a different sort of party, she did not want to leave just yet.
Wolfe was also relieved to hear they’d be staying. He set them up with everything they needed to camp out—toiletries, bedding, extra clothes. Both Jan and Chuck refused a tent, preferring to sleep under the stars. The overcast had dissipated, leaving a clear black firmament with pin-bright sparkles.
They lay side by side, several feet apart. So much had happened today. Jan’s thoughts flitted from one event to another. Her brain hadn’t been so active in a long time.
Chuck cleared his throat. “I…uh…I hope you don’t stereotype cowboys as bandits because of how those idiotic young men behaved tonight.”
Jan laughed, loosening something within her. “That’s the problem,” she said. “We’re all stereotypes, aren’t we?”
She was quiet for a moment. “You don’t think of yourself as a cowboy, do you?” Jan felt herself opening, felt the words rolling out.
“Well, one time when I was a boy, I did calf-ride in the bull-riding arena…”
They talked deep into the night.
The next morning, the extent of the raid became clearer. This would not be the regular well-appointed outdoor festival. This would be a simple affair. Naturally rustic. No gourmet food, just loafs of bread, hunks of cheese, and beans. No craft liquor, just a beer keg masked in a wooden barrel. No electric lights, just campfires and torches. And worst of all, for Wolfe, no microphones or electrified, amplified sound. No, that wasn’t the worst.
The worst was, after Wolfe had posted his update last night, many of his fans backed out. Chuck offered to call some people. As he used Wolfe’s phone, dialing the numbers from memory, Jan felt a bit worried about the types of people he would invite. Wolfe was nervous for other reasons. The DJ had left town last night, and the electric violinists could not play without amplification. So Wolfe said he was going to drive into town to look for supplies. Jan nodded, hoping to make the plundered site a little nicer while he was gone.
She decided to turn the broken nest into a photo booth. She scrounged the woods for wildflowers, which she plucked and wove into the remaining curved branch wall. Meanwhile, Chuck took the leftover branch piles over to the wooden stage and began building latticework as a backdrop. They worked in silence.
When she was done, Jan went inside the trailer to check the time on her phone. Hours had passed since Wolfe had left; he should be back by now. In fact, fans might start to filter in any minute. Then she noticed a few missed calls. Immediately, she called back.
Wolfe picked up with a panicked voice. “They didn’t have what I needed in town. I had to drive out much farther than expected. Now…now there’s no way I’ll get back in time. I already cancelled the show online, but Jan, you might have to turn some people away. People who didn’t get the message in time.”
“Ok. It’ll be ok.”
Jan went outside. A group of college-aged girls had arrived and were taking selfies at her floral photo booth. A few solidly built young men, who looked like they might be locals invited by Chuck, were hovering awkwardly near the ale barrel.
Instead of turning everyone away, Jan lit all the fires. Dusk was descending. Maybe she could stall somehow until Wolfe returned. Jan went back inside the trailer, searching for inspiration. Tie-dye blankets. Nope. Band posters. Nope. Wolf mask…? Jan grabbed the mask, furry and ferocious, with sharp snaggle-teeth protruding from the snouted mouth, which was netted. Someone called Jan’s name. She looked up to find Chuck in the doorway of the trailer.
“Anything else I can do to help?” he asked.
A smile inched across Jan’s lips.
It took some persuading, but an hour later, Chuck’s face was swallowed by the wolf mask, and he was on stage, sitting on a stool with a guitar. Apparently Chuck knew how to play. A crowd of about fifty people had gathered, much smaller than the usual two-hundred. It was a fairly mixed crowd, Jan noted, across all demographics. Everyone was tearing into bread and cheese, sipping at ale, content but curious.
Finally, the wolf head bowed, and Chuck began plucking out a haunting tune. The netting of the mask didn’t obstruct Chuck’s booming, smoky voice; if anything, it added a layer of lo-fi crackling, like a vintage microphone—an achingly nostalgic effect. Jan felt her heart swell at each song, mostly Cash numbers, but also some other folksy songs, some country-rock, and then…the originals. Lovebreaths. They made an appearance. That was when Jan realized that Chuck had a poetic capacity she’d never expected. She looked at the people around her, rapt and moved.
Chuck dedicated his last song, You Are My Sunshine, to his wife and daughter. When he left the stage, to great applause, the crowd did not disperse. People remained and talked, mingled. Gathered around the fires with new friends. Set up camp. After removing the mask in private, Chuck joined Jan.
“You were wonderful!” she told him in a rush. “Your singing was spellbinding, so profound…I…I had no idea what you were capable of.”
Chuck reddened. “Well, now, thanks. But I’m sure you’re capable of quite a bit yourself.”
“That’s just it. I’m not. I mean, maybe I could fix up your truck if I had the parts and money. But I have no money, and no idea what to do with my life…”
Chuck looked at her. “I’m going to tell you what I should’ve told my daughter a long time ago. Do what makes your heart excited to keep beating.”
Jan snorted. “I doubt fixing cars would put a dent in the world’s problems. I…I want to make a difference.”
“You already did,” Chuck said. “I’m here, ain’t I?”
Jan nodded slowly. So was she.
“Shall we?” She nodded toward the crowded campfire. As Jan and Chuck walked over, she felt herself coming together, an engine being reassembled. One piece at a time.