6.11 / September 2011

The Cloud Factory

Jimmy brought nothing but a duffel bag.  He strapped the bag in the bed of my decrepit Chevy.

“My last ride,” he said climbing in the cab.  “You’re riding home alone, Gary.”

“You serious?” I said.

“As a house fire.  Take me to the bus depot.”

I pulled away from the dirt alley onto the street.  We rode past the Dairy King and then out onto the narrow one-lane gravel roads across the state line.  Every couple weeks I ran Jimmy in to Cheyenne and downed a couple beers while he unloaded his product.  Then we rode back and I came in for two benjamins.  Same ride we’d done for four years.  Jimmy fired a joint and coughed wet and deep.  Yellow skin, clumpy hair.  When he handed over the joint you could see his nails all shriveled up.  Happens to you when you cook crank.  Even though Jimmy wasn’t like some crankheads, tweaking in a grubby shanty.  He kept his kitchen so clean you could let your dog lick the floor.

I said, “What about your kitchen?”

“Burned it to the ground.”

We cruised the gravel, dust snaking out behind us bright in the June sun.  On the horizon you could see the big smoke from the power plant just outside Cheyenne eighty miles away.  I still called it the cloud factory, like when me and Jimmy were kids.  Jimmy tossed a manila envelope on my lap.

“Severance package,” he said.

I stuffed it in my front pocket.  It was plenty thick.

“For being such a good skate all these years,” Jimmy said.  “That’s twenty grand.  Buy yourself a new pickup.  Hell, buy two used ones.”

“Christ, Jimmy.  Twenty grand?”

“Quit your blubbering.”

We drove on into the hills, out where there wasn’t nothing but cows and prairie goats and cussing underpaid ranch hands.  Other Jimmys.  He coughed again, his knuckles all cracked yellow.

“So,” Jimmy said.  “How much do you suppose I have in that duffel?”

“More than twenty grand.”

“Bet your ass more than twenty grand.  Four hundred fifty seven thousand six hundred and thirty one clams.  I counted it three times.  Been counting it for four years.”

“You loaded a duffel with four hundred grand?”

“Yep.  They’ll throw in the luggage compartment without even looking at it.”

We drove over the old Hamond Creek bridge, tires rumbling on the boards working loose from their bolts.  I kept an eye on Jimmy to see if he was sizing up the country at all, saying his goodbyes.  But he looked like he couldn’t wait to never see them hills again.

“You ain’t worried about nothing?” I asked.

He jerked his head.  “Why?”

“I don’t know.  I’m just asking.”

Jimmy lit a smoke.  He said, “You can smell it on me, can’t you.”  He pulled out a pistol, a sleek little Beretta.  “I ought to throw this thing out the window right goddamn now,” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “That’s some peace of mind you got there.”

“Going to get me into a piece of trouble it can’t get me out of.  You want it?”  Jimmy held the Beretta out to me.

“Hell, Jimmy, I don’t know my way around one.”

“Take it or I’m throwing it out.  Here.”

I took the piece.  Jimmy unlocked his seatbelt and pulled up his shirt to unbuckle the holster, a neat little job under his armpit.  Not even a bulge under his shirt.  I looked back to the road.  There was a man flagging us down in it.

I hit the brakes and jerked the wheel but the road was narrow and the man went all over the windshield.  We skidded into the ravine.  The pickup flipped end over end and came up on its wheels.  I sat alone in the cab with the pistol cool in my hand.  Smoke curlicued from Jimmy’s cigarette on the floor mat.  Shards of windshield sparkled everywhere.  A severed hand teetered on the dashboard.

I unclicked the seat belt and kicked the door open.  Staggering outside I tripped into a patch of cactus.  I lurched to my feet and stared at the prickers in my hand but couldn’t feel them.  When I put a shirtsleeve to my forehead, a sticky splotch of board formed.  I unstrapped the duffel bag and slung it over my shoulder.  That four hundred grand seemed to weigh four hundred pounds.

“Jimmy,” I called.

Jimmy never answered.  I found him where he got thrown from the cab and the cab had rolled over him.  My stomach jumped and I had to turn away.

I started climbing out of the ravine.  My legs were shaky but seemed to be functioning all right.  I kept wiping my forehead with a shirtsleeve.  It seemed like a real long hike up.  On the road a long skid mark sheered into a sizable patch of knocked-down weeds.

Across the road sat a white late-model Lincoln with Texas plates, hazards blinking.  The rear driver’s side tire was flat and a jack laid on its side by the hubcap.  Jimmy would have said the car was one flat away from perfect.  Keys jangled in the ignition.  A GPS was blinking “No Service” on the dash and the radio was going, some talk show.  I flicked it off and unshouldered the duffel onto the passenger seat, shoving the pistol in my pants.  I popped the trunk and found a suitcase and in it was a clean white T-shirt and baseball cap.

I cleaned my forehead off as best I could and took off my shirt.  The envelope was gone from the pocket.  I pulled on the clean T-shirt and the ball cap.  Then I got to work on the flat.  Little flecks of blood and glass were spattered on my jeans but nothing too noticeable.  My hand burned from the cactus prickers.

I had one lug nut to go when a pickup topped the rise.  I untucked the shirt to let it hang over the pistol.  The pickup rolled to a stop in the middle of the road, brakes squeaking.  I lifted a hand.

“Hey, Stan,” I said.

Stan looked at the skid marks, the weeds, me.  “What the sam hill,” he said.  “Where’s your pickup?  Whose car is that?”

“I don’t know whose car it is.  There was an accident.  I don’t got a cell signal.  Do you?”

“No,” said Stan.  He got out of the pickup, kicked a toe in the skid marks.  “This car was just sitting here?  Where’s the driver?”

“Down there,” I said.  “Down there all over.”

Stan walked to the edge of the road.  He gave a low whistle.  “I’ll say you had an accident, all right,” he said.

I shot Stan in the back of the head.  He toppled into the ravine, rolled down into a patch of sage.  I went over to his pickup and grabbed a long crescent wrench out of the bed, jamming it between seat and gas pedal.  I cranked the steering wheel hard then popped it into drive.  About got my arm taken off when the pickup roared into the ravine.  I crossed the road and picked up the tire iron and finished putting on the tire.  Then I climbed into the Lincoln and aimed for the cloud factory.

A few miles down the road I got to wondering if maybe Jimmy hadn’t been bullshitting me about the money.  Sixty miles I pondered it.  I didn’t stop.  I wanted all the miles I could get between me and that ravine.

By the time I got to Cheyenne my hands were shaking good.  I kept them in my pockets walking into the truck stop.  Felt like every son of a bitch in the place was eyeing me.  I requisitioned a private shower room and set the duffel bag down beneath a mural of penises scratched into the wall.  I opened the duffel up.  Jimmy was a good skate.  The money was there, all right.  Stacks of bills beneath books, T-shirts, tube socks and a Greyhound ticket.  Also a billfold with a California state ID and no picture.  David Shandy.

“David Shandy,” I said to myself.  “Dave.  Nice to meet you.”

The mirror in the place had been removed so I cleaned up best as I could by my distorted reflection in the paper towel dispenser.  I buried my old billfold deep in a trashcan filled with mushy paper towels and palmed a few bills from a stack, slid them in my new billfold and stuffed the Beretta in a tube sock.  At the front I bought a Coke and some beef jerky and drove downtown to the bus depot.

I parked the Lincoln at a Piggly Wiggly, threw the keys in the trash and walked to the bus depot.  At the booth I slid the ticket through the slot to the lady.  I could just make out my face in the scratched security glass.  I tried to see if I was the same or not.  It was hard to tell.  Then I noticed the lady behind the glass talking to me.

“Sir?  Las Cruces, sir?”

“What?” I said.

“Las Cruces.  Your destination, sir.  Is that correct?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Las Cruces.  That’s right.  That’s where I’m headed.”

“Have a seat in the waiting area, sir,” said the lady.

I had a seat in the waiting area, feet on the duffel bag.  Some news show was on making no sense so instead I watched the cars go by on the boulevard, watching for dents and cracked windshields.  When it came time to get on the bus, I let them stow the duffel in the luggage compartment below, like Jimmy said.  He was right.  No one even looked at it.

Court Merrigan's short story collection MOONDOG OVER THE MEKONG is forthcoming from Snubnose Press and he's got short stories out or coming soon in Thuglit, Needle, Weird Tales, Plots With Guns, Big Pulp, Noir Nation, and a bunch of others. His story "The Cloud Factory," which appeared here in PANK, was nominated for a Spinetingler Award. Links at http://courtmerrigan.wordpress.com . He runs the Bareknuckles Pulp Department at Out of the Gutter and lives in Wyoming with his family.
6.11 / September 2011