mk's question about recent reading was a hit, and it's been a while since we had some good quotes. Here's an excerpt from Blue Highways.
- A fellow with a face he’d gotten a lot of mileage out of sat down and drank off a beer like ice water and started complaining the electric company had billed him forty-eight dollars for an unoccupied house he owned. “Hell,” he said, “place has been boarded up ten years. May have to clean your ceiling.”
Dollar bills, folded to the size of postage stamps, clung like spiders to the ten-foot Celotex ceilings. “Why is money up there?” I asked.
“Road salesman in here years ago,” Mrs. Been said, “started betting he could throw a dollar bill against the ceiling and make it stay. Got some takers – like everybody. So he pulls out a couple of quarters, heavy silver ones, and a thumbtack. Folds the bill around the coins and tack so the tack stuck through the paper. He tosses it up and it sticks like a dart. He made some money that night. So’d the ceiling. Don’t ever bet a man against his own tricks. Every now and then, a dollar comes down. One stuck in a fella’s boot couple years ago. Money from heaven.”
A small man, tightly and neatly put together, his muscles wound around his bones like copper wire on an armature, his eyes faded turquoise, sauntered in. “Highway department’s stringin’ fence down eight-one,” he said.
“What’s the need for a fence?” I asked.
“People are runnin’ over cattle,” he said. “Miners drive it like a racetrack. Folks used to slow down for stock on the road, and we didn’t need no fences, but copper people don’t respect nothin’ smaller than a steamshovel. Always in a hurry. Afraid somethin’s gonna get them out here.”
“Those city boys don’t believe what can happen if they hit a steer, but school’s out when a half-ton of hamburger comes over the hood. That fence is for people, not cattle.”
“Government’s got things bassackwards again,” the little man said.
Mrs. Been turned to me, “He’s a real cowboy. Horse, lasso, branding iron.”
“Not many of us left except you count ones that tells you they’s cowboys. A lot of them ones now. I been ridin’ since the war.”
“Weren’t you up around Alamogordo when they tested the bomb?” the high-mileage man said. “Think I heard you were.”
“Over west to Elephant Butte, up off the Rio Grande. Just a greenhorn, sleepin’ out where we was movin’ cattle. July of ‘forty-five. They was a high wind that night and rain, and I didn’t get much sleep. Curled up against a big rock out of the wind. I was still in my bedroll at daybreak when come a god-terrible flash. I jumped up figurin’ one of the boys took a flashbulb pitcher of me sleepin’ on the job. Course nobody had a Kodak. Couple minutes later the ground started rumblin’. We heard plenty of TNT goin’ off to Almagordy before, but we never heard nothin’ like that noise. Sound just kept roarin’. ‘Oh, Jesus,’ I says, ‘what’d they go and do now?’ Next month we saw wheres they bombed Heerosaykee, Japan. We never knowed what an A-tomic bomb was, but we knowed that one flash wasn’t no TNT blockbuster.”
“The day the sun rose in the wrong direction,” the other man said. “They’ve been testing soldiers stationed at Alamogordo in ‘forty-five for radiation poisoning. You know, Herefords up there turned white.”
“Feelin’ fine. Doctor told me once it was a good thing I was behind that rock. He says the wind saved me, but the wife says the bomb musta been why we never had no kids. Says it burned out my genetics.”
“You never know.”
“Truth is, bad genetics runs in the family. Dad never had no kids.”
“Your dad didn’t have children?” I said.
“Not a one. That’s why he adopted me.” He drained his beer. “You know what Spaniards called the valley where the bomb got blowed off?”
High mileage looked up. “Don’t think I ever heard.”
“Journey of Death,” the little cowboy said. “That’s the English for it.”