Borders

MIKE saw the hand-printed ad because his mother had sent him to the food mart for artichoke hearts. She was making her lettuce-free salad and could not do without the acid-soaked chunks. It was also her way of saying that since he hadn’t bothered to line up a job for the summer, he was fair game for the endless tasks she could find to save him from idleness. His dad just got on his case each evening for fifteen minutes after a day at the arsenal, where they had been gearing up for the past three years to incinerate the stockpile of chemical weapons. He knew the lectures would grow longer as the summer passed, but at least they would be contained and predictable. At some level his father sympathized over this last season of uncommitted existence. There was no telling, though, what his mother might cook up to make the nest a bothersome place best flown.

A few jobs were still available in town, even three weeks into summer. The tire shop always needed a warm—no, overheated—body to fix flats and charge batteries roadside. Or he could supervise activities for a herd of ADD offspring at the Boys and Girls Club. His friend Kirby lasted two weeks in the position the previous summer. Parents complained about his improvised games, like West Nile fever, in which the kids formed pyramids while being hosed down.

Small-town life could be a series of dead ends when it came to jobs and maybe even relations. That truth had lately come into focus for him, now that the high-school track was running out. College could give him a new ticket, but for some reason he hadn’t gotten around to applying. Lack of interest in learning hadn’t stopped some of his classmates from staying in school. But he didn’t want to waste time and money just to party with frat brothers and scrape by in his courses. It was beginning to look like his best chance lay in landing a halfway decent job in Little Rock. If he could live at home and commute for a couple years, he might even save enough to get himself properly launched.

On his way into the mart he glanced at the mechanical horse he had ridden as a kid. The paint was flaking off in places, but the face still had that expression of galloping ardor, as if it weren’t simply bobbing up and down but carrying out an urgent mission. And it was still just a dime to ride, a token of a small town’s attempt to lasso time.

Out of habit he also glanced at the bulletin board inside. From it he had gotten odd jobs and stuff for sale, including his ten-year-old pickup, for which he still owed his folks a few hundred. There he spotted a new poster saying a driver was wanted for $5/hr plus gas. None of the phone-number tabs at the bottom had been torn off; just the chance he had a jump on everyone else made him feel the gig was his for the asking. He imagined some old lady needed to be driven regularly to the drugstore and the old-lady hair salon. If nothing else, he could pick up some pocket change and claim a good-faith stab at employment with a minimum of effort.

The girl at the register set him straight, though. She said this guy that was new in town and spoke a little funny put up the ad. She seemed to recall he was staying at a local motel. As for his character, she would say not-from-these-parts-strange but short of creepy.

Mike decided to give him a call with a list of questions to feel out the terrain. He didn’t want to end up a clueless mule for some drug runner. Sure enough, he got connected to a room at the Continental Motel, and a somewhat formal voice with a slight accent answered, “This is Jerzy.” For every question Mike asked, though, his potential employer had several, inquiring into his driving record, his insurance coverage for passengers, even the make of vehicle he drove. The fact that this guy was so cautious and deliberate could either mean he was a wary criminal or someone on the level trying to cover his bases. Mike leaned toward the latter, so agreed to meet him the next day at a diner attached to the motel.

*

Most of the customers were regulars, either locals or big-rig drivers, with the occasional budget traveler in the mix. Sometimes Mike and his folks came here on Friday nights for the bluegill special.

The man across from him, with his sharp features and shaggy black hair, might have blended in, except for the pair of half glasses that he slipped on and off a hawkish nose. Everything about him seemed casually, almost furtively, attentive. And while he didn’t smile or laugh more than ordinary, a fixed expression of amusement lurked somewhere behind his face. Just now he was chatting up the waitress as if bantering with an old friend. She took care to keep his coffee topped. Mike guessed he was a generous tipper.

“I chose this establishment,” he confided to Mike as the waitress went to cut him a slice of pecan pie, “because it advertised itself as American owned and operated. One wants authenticity in one’s travel experiences, even if they do betray a certain self-conscious promotion. As the proprietor so frankly put it upon my arrival, ‘You won’t smell no curry in this office.’ Then when he saw my surname on the registration card he faltered slightly, uncertain whether he had given offense. I remained affable to ease his mind.”

After some talk about the professional niches that various nationalities had carved for themselves in America, Jerzy turned to his own business. He wanted a driver for the next four to six weeks while he completed a writing project. In Europe he had gotten into the habit of writing on trains, but the American rail system was patchy and undependable in comparison. Besides, with the advent of cell phones, public transport had grown more nettlesome. The schedule would be that of a standard American workweek, nine to five daily. He understood that young males in this country were fond of driving for its own sake, so Michael (a name that fell somewhere between the English and Russian pronunciations) might be just the person for this job. That his young acquaintance did not seem overly given to talk was a point in his favor; though he himself was a capable raconteur, when writing he required silence, or at least the productive drone of road noise. Unfortunately, this meant the radio must not be played, and music devices with ear buds or headphones were also unsatisfactory. As for each day’s itinerary, that he would leave to his driver’s discretion. He need not consider it a sightseeing tour of the NaturalState, but might vary the routes for his own diversion. Should these terms be agreeable, they would start the next morning.

Mike was relieved to hear about the silence part, except maybe for the ban on music. If the guy talked this much all day in the truck, he would have to drive off the nearest bluff.

*

That night he got to thinking how all he knew about this Jerzy Dubilas was what he himself had said. Well, that and his card, on which he identified himself as author, translator, and vagrant. A little Internet research seemed in order. The name led him to over two hundred sites, most of them in foreign languages. First he had to set aside a couple guys with the same name, one of whom seemed to be a labor leader in a shipyard, the other an owner of a chain of pawnshops. The remaining sites did deal with an author. By Mike’s count, he had written seven books and translated four others. Three of his own had been translated into English.

Biographical facts weren’t so easy to find, and seemed to conflict. He did come across a long interview, in some Eastern European language of course. But the scraps he could assemble indicated that Jerzy was born to a Polish father and a Czech mother in 1952 or ’53, that the family moved around a lot when he was a kid, that he somehow managed to attend universities in England and West Germany (or France and East Germany), and since then had traveled and written, often under the radar. There was one group picture at a writer’s conference in Budapest from the 1980s. The guy identified as Jerzy did look like a younger, even shaggier version of the guy he now decided was legit, or at least somewhat less shadowy.

He printed out the most relevant pages and showed them to his folks. The arrangement seemed odd to them, but they were willing to let him try it as long as he took a cell phone. Knowing Jerzy’s ground rules, he said that he could only call them when he stopped for gas or lunch. The next morning, right before he left, his mother slipped him a canister of pepper spray, just in case.

*

Jerzy settled himself in the passenger seat with a thermos of coffee and a legal pad. Apparently he was in the middle of something, as he flipped over a dozen or so filled pages. Then he sat vacantly, neither looking at the scenery nor entirely ignoring it. Mike had started to slip into his own thoughts when he noticed Jerzy’s pen moving. The space between them, the angle of the pad, and Jerzy’s irregular penmanship made it difficult to tell whether the writing was even in English.

This first day Mike thought he would drive his passenger around Little Rock, though not as he would a visitor. It was more a convenience for himself, a place he knew, but not as much as he would like. Some of the curving, unpredictably intersecting streets always confused him. This time too he got a little disoriented, but it didn’t matter because he wasn’t trying to get anywhere in particular. He did stick to the main thoroughfares, because driving through neighborhoods would involve too much stop-and-go.

After lunch he crossed the river into North Little Rock, but exhausted its main features by mid-afternoon. So he headed for PinnacleMountain, then took a long, arcing path around the capital toward home. When not absorbed in his surroundings, he noticed that Jerzy’s writing grew more sustained the fewer the interruptions in their movement. He figured it was part of his job to help make the words flow. The daily itinerary would obviously require more planning from this point.

Back at the motel lot, Jerzy handed him two twenty-dollar bills and declared the start a qualified success.

*

With a map of Arkansas before him, Mike realized how little he knew of his home state. Outside of a few parks, some scattered towns, and the well-beaten path to Fayetteville for Razorback games, much of it was a blank to him. Driving it every day for the next month or so would probably fix that, especially if he went about it systematically. So he divided the state into rough quarters and decided to cycle through them clockwise. That way he wouldn’t be chasing up and down the same pavement as the day before. The interstates and rural highways would give him quick access, and as he became more familiar with each region he could branch out to lesser routes and roads off the map. It struck him that in eight hours he could reach the farthest corners of the state and get back in time for dinner. And at the end of this gig he would be able to talk knowledgeably of Ink, Nail, Oil Trough, and Possum Grape.

*

Mike admired Jerzy’s ability to converse with anyone. He seemed to have a fund of assorted information at his call. Without patronizing, he could tailor the subject to his audience. Over pulled pork and fried okra he and some old vets discussed theories on Glenn Miller’s disappearance, then the little cultural slips made by German agents, like the one who couldn’t identify big-nosed Kilroy peering over his wall.

At a gas station in the Ozarks he was delighted to find a bait machine. For his two dollars he got a bucket of worm-laced soil, whose denizens he promptly liberated. Mike expected this detail would wind up in his writing.

Jerzy didn’t miss much. One day a couple weeks into their travels he started in on town names like Canaan, Gethsemane, and Zion, proceeding to muse aloud on American religion. “Your country’s Hebraism is understandable. The early settlers would have seen themselves as delivered from the ecclesiastical dynasties of Europe. This was a place of fresh beginnings for a chosen people. As a wilderness, however, it also sapped religion, which consequently required buttressing. Of course someone would eventually come down the mountain with a homegrown testament for American saints. Granted, too radical for most tastes. And the pluralism of the country made circling the wagons an ever more complicated maneuver. What looks like the embrace of Christianity to many is the fuller flower of the religion of Americanism. Once in Kentucky I grew impatient with the sanctimony of a man who insisted that the U.S. was the world’s only truly Christian nation. He held up one coin after another in proof. ‘Yes,’ I retorted, ‘but the god in which you trust is your financial might. You should also inscribe this motto on your bullets and bombs, the holy things of your co-god.’ Normally I am capable of greater tact, being after all a guest of the nation.”

Mike could follow enough of the argument to tell how offensive it would be to the average flag-and-cross-waver. It said a lot more forcefully things he had stumbled around in semi-drunken bull sessions with friends. He saw himself as a freethinker on religion ever since his dad gave him the choice of attending church or not. If he still went now and then to make his mom happy, that didn’t mean he bought what they were selling.

This issue was always in the background of his relation with Sara, too. She probably thought if she was kind and understanding enough he would finally see his error and maybe even join her church. Her whole family, generous as it could be, always seemed to be recruiting somehow. The problem had raised its horned head at the lakeside picnic they’d hosted the previous weekend.

*

It began with Sara’s mom saying she had never cared for the term deviled eggs. The older brother and sister, each already married by the early twenties with tykes of their own, started suggesting alternate names. They weren’t being funny, just painfully sincere. So he suggested angel cradles, which everyone applauded, except Sara, who cast an injured look because she alone knew the true depths of his heathenism. Okay, so he had made a small joke at her family’s expense. Now he could spend the rest of the day feeling like a heel.

As much as he liked, maybe even loved Sara, he couldn’t help feeling a little resentful over her gentle, patient, insistent expectations. Admittedly, she often had an improving effect on his character. But he didn’t want to be fast-tracked into any kind of life. It was good odds if he proposed to her—and agreed to marry in her church—she would skip college and settle right down to start a family. Money wouldn’t be a problem because he would be taken up in her father’s successful insulation business. And by forty he would be a grandfather and something close to Sara’s version of his best self. He thought of his own dad happily riding a mower around his acre of lawn on a Saturday evening, with a beer in the cup holder as a sign of his independence.

There had to be other choices.

*

Jerzy had noticed the tape player in the truck and wangled his own music, the kind he could write to. So they passed log trucks at the urging of Dvorak, threaded deep hollows to Chopin or Scriabin, and confronted the Delta with the support of Cossack singers. Mike didn’t suppose Jerzy was writing about Arkansas, or America for that matter, but the world gliding past could still have some relation to the flow in his head. He recalled Jerzy’s comment about getting sufficient distance to enter his subject intimately.

When it came to personal matters, the vagabond author maintained distance. His ideas on everything from communism to amusement parks he shared liberally. Details about his life came glancingly at odd intervals, like a connect-the-dots picture with too few dots. As far as Mike could make out, his father was attached to various embassies in Eastern, and later Western, Europe. After early years of struggle, Jerzy had come to get by on a small bequest, modest royalties, and writing grants. He mainly published overseas, as American editors didn’t understand him. There seemed to be a son about Mike’s age being raised by a former mistress.

This concern with privacy or authenticity appeared in his work too, at least the example Jerzy left in the truck without comment three weeks into their arrangement. It was a story he had originally written in Polish, then translated into Czech and English. Mike seldom read anything out of school, and only some of what was assigned there, but his curiosity was aroused. Not like the prying of one character though, a neighbor with a can opener for a nose. Everyone wanted to discover the secrets or corner the views of “Citizen Butterfly,” a Mr. Lepidop, who signed petitions in disappearing ink and politely abstained from committee votes when not drafting his own resolutions thanking military statues on behalf of birds or endorsing studies to determine the most common spots in town where people had felt inexplicably happy. His fellow citizens finally had him declared insane and chased him with nets, quill pens, and chloroform-soaked hankies, but he shed layer after layer of clothes and skin on his way to the nearest vanishing point, so taxing his pursuers’ limited depth perception that they ended up bagging and drugging one another.

Jerzy had probably given him one of his stories for beginners, but Mike appreciated that you had to suit the lure to the fish. In it there was something of Jerzy, and something anonymous, like graffiti or a fairy tale. He figured he was one of the three people in Arkansas to have read it.

*

His conceit was checked a few days later over at Sara’s. Dutiful soul that she was, she had already bought her books for the fall. Mike sat idly paging through her English text when he came upon Jerzy’s story. The shock of recognition made him utter a profanity he normally stifled around her. So at least one American editor got Jerzy. Then it struck him that a writer good enough to be taught in college was holed up in a motel in his town. And he had been chosen to assist in the writing process by driving him around. Maybe what he was working on now would end up in some other anthology.

In his excitement he got Sara to read the story, a mistake as it turned out. All mildness as usual, she couldn’t say she had enjoyed it. When he pressed the point, she finally issued some vague criticism of people who live in cocoons. His defense of the story got a little heated, and the next thing she was accusing him of sniping at her family. The argument ended with her tearily declaring if he wanted to break up with her, he should have the courage simply to come out and say so.

That was how he spent his weekend.

*

How Jerzy spent his free time was a matter of some guesswork. At first Mike pictured him reading or surfing the cable in his room. Several times though when driving in the early evening he had seen the dark-clad figure loping through town. Someone like that stood out because only those without wheels ever walked. But he was meeting people too, and impressing them enough to become a topic of talk. Had he kept to himself, the townsfolk might have thought him suspicious. Instead, they warmed to him. A deputy he’d befriended took him on patrol with her. The bakery manager gave Mike a bag of sweets for them to snack on while crisscrossing the Fourche LaFave. Jerzy had even agreed to pronounce the words at a spelling bee for adults, a fundraiser for the local literacy council.

While the town couldn’t keep a store that sold new books in business, the used-book store, which mainly traded in harlequin romance and murder mystery, did have a small selection of what English teachers would call literature in the window. For the second time in as many weeks Mike was drawn up short by Jerzy’s name. The owner had ordered a collection of his essays, which Mike snapped up with a fervor he had previously felt only for sports cards and graphic novels. It was a compendium of Jerzyisms on such things as the history of facial hair, Russian circuses, mandrakes, and the concept of unreality.

He seemed obliged to know more about the man and his work than others did. Some of Jerzy’s luster had rubbed off, and people around town started regarding him as an overlooked prospect, a boy with a future. Or was he only to be a guy in insulation who once as a teen had chauffeured a foreign author?

*

Jerzy indicated this was the last week he would need Mike’s services, as he was leaving for Utah before his return to Prague. He had nearly met his writing quota, thanks in large part to his young friend’s assistance.

Mike felt as he often had in the previous weeks when roughly charting the day’s route yet leaving room for spurs and byways. In the process he had covered a lot of ground, so much that an image of the state had begun to form in his mind, its mountain ridges and river valleys gradually settling into woody bayous, then flatlands given to cycles of drought and flood. Much of that land was farmed, soy to strawberries, cattle to catfish, and chickens galore, raised by Hmong, processed by Hispanics, and served in Anglo down-home-cookin’ restaurants. A thousand towns, mainly small, sometimes dying, declared their existence with cast-plastic Victorian lampposts, or festivals to pickle and toad. These things and more he knew firsthand now, carried with him, and didn’t want to retreat from for the sake of security or comfort. It was time to decide.

*

That last Friday Jerzy simply observed as Mike traced a carefully mapped loop through all four quarters of the state. He had finished his self-assignment and could set aside the writer’s imperative for doing. And there might be cause to break the relaxed silence between himself and this young man who seemed to have gained a productive tension of his own.

“A few weeks of summer freedom left. Will you then join your father in ridding the world of dirty bombs?”

Mike smiled, aware of Jerzy’s interest . Since hearing of this work, he had studied the process in detail. “No, I’d probably drop one or unscrew it wrong and gas the state. Actually,” he added, more tentative, “I’d like to do something for myself.”

“Ah, a personal venture. The best and riskiest kind. Tell.”

“Well, I’ve been doing some research, and it looks like there are ways to travel the country and eat too. For one, you can drive rental cars from towns where they’re not much needed to cities where they are. Or you can be a courier and take valuable packages across country.” He stopped there, unsure whether all this was some green kid’s fantasy.

Jerzy looked at both sides of the small dam they were crossing and said, “This thing is worth trying. You must not mind hardship as it comes. And do not shy away from solitude.”

They threshed the subject further, Jerzy offering tips on living cheaply. As for persuading the parents, he could point out the travel and work experience without the adverse effects of joining an army. Mike didn’t say it, but it was Jerzy’s blessing that meant most to him.

*

The next day, the day Jerzy left town, a package came addressed to Comrade Michael Pearl. Inside was an envelope with $300 “for new tires” and a notebook in the front of which Jerzy had written, “Fill this. Be faithful.”

Anticipating the road ahead, like a darkroom photo just before the image appears, Mike thought of an aspect of his travels with Jerzy that had become a standing joke between them. Whenever he approached the state line, he pulled over, paused, then turned around, as if the road gave out on the other side. The six surrounding states just seemed out of bounds. Now, though, the idea would be to cross lines, as Jerzy had been doing from his earliest years. He had started at home with the help of a man who made him rethink what it was to be at home anywhere. Some people mounted a religious figure on the dashboard to oversee their comings and goings. The vigor of a Cossack choir would translate him across windswept prairies.

___

James Fowler teaches literature at the University of Central Arkansas. His stories have recently appeared in Line Zero, Paper Nautilus, The Chariton Review, Elder Mountain, and Rockhurst Review.

 


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