The Asphalt Prairie
The landscape is like plenty of others. It’s a more familiar sight to the average suburbanite than the steppes are to the average 16th century Mongolian. The dark grey land continues for several hundred meters until it either hits a concrete wall or a strip of grass and there’s a high probability that on the other side of these obstacles the dark grey land starts up again. There are thousands of the same throughout America, maybe even millions, all having the same purpose. The bed of the once almighty automobile. The parking lot.
Unlike the other parking lots spread throughout the land, this particular car lot has some activity. It’s bursting with life, ie: grasses and other plant species are breaking through its compacted surface, creating cracks that would once be filled with tar. There are also several critters that scavenge the abandoned cars, the very cars that will squat on this land for all eternity. They burrow into the leather interiors, only finding white fluff that has no nutritional value, or the venture through the wide tunnel that’s not far from the ground, working their way through it, and if the vehicle is rusted enough, they might get to a chamber that holds a tiny bit of liquid that their very own molecules might eventually turn into. But those activities are common to all parking lots these days. There’s nothing unusual about them. What’s truly unusual about this parking lot is that there’s a lot of large animal activity besides the wandering coyotes or color blind rabbits that would be found in most other parking lots across the country.
An improvised stable stands near the edge of the asphalt prairie. This supplies the majority of the large animals; twenty or so horses are inside the stable, each with their own pen. The roof and walls are all made out of canvas. The canvas walls wouldn’t offer much of a challenge to a free-spirited horse, yet all the horses seem content in their pens. Who would want to escape when you have plenty of hay to eat and salt licks to snack on?
Twelve humans supplied these treats, these being the rest of the animals that inhabited the parking lot. They occupy a wall-less tarp tent that’s much smaller than the stable and about ten meters away from it. The roof of the tent is also made of canvas, and protruding from the roof is a number of thin metal poles that reached down to the asphalt. Underneath this roof lays a series of four six-seater picnic tables, each of them being shaded from the sun.
The twelve people are sitting on these picnic tables and they’re enjoying a number of activities. At the eastern end, four men are playing a card game. Next to them, a man and two women are playing a different card game while seated beside them are two men playing a game of chess. The other three, seated on the western most picnic table, are two men and a woman who are having a conversation.
All of the people under the tarp are buggy drivers employed by Alpha Corp. Although most people do their long distance travelling by freight trains, much like the hobos of the dirty thirties, buggy drivers provide a vital service for the public relations department. Homesteads are usually located on railway lines, but the importers usually tend land that’s far from a set of tracks. It’s easier for them to get away with what they’re doing; they can’t just be shot at like a herd of buffalo near a passenger train filled with cowboys. So, in order for the PR silencers to find the suspects, the silencers need a form of transportation that will take them off-tracks, and sometimes maybe even off-road. The buggies can take care of that, and more often than not, the drivers dub as experienced tour guides.
The two men playing chess are both African-American. The one controlling the black pieces looks to be in his early forties and the one with the white pieces appears to be around ten years older. The former is Clayton Johnson while the latter is Earl Carter.
“Take that pastor,” said Clayton as he moves one of his knights over a space that contained a white bishop. He grabs the bishop then places it in pile of pawns beside the chessboard.
“Awww,” sighs Earl. “You know I got a hard-on for bishops too. Shit, I might as well throw in the towel.”
“Clay the Black Knight, knows the moves that is right,” sings Clayton.
“That are right.”
“Aww, come on boy, you know it doesn’t flow that way,” said Clayton in a vernacular dialect. “Quit being such a grammar Nazi and just jive with me.”
“What did I tell you last time about using the word ‘boy?’”
“You don’t remember?”
“Oh I remember, I just had no comment.”
“We’re both middle aged men. I got the same right to call you boy,” states Earl as he moves a pawn forward. “You no longer need to use that word, so you might as well just scratch that out of your vocab.”
“Scratch this one out of your vocab,” said Clayton as he knocks down the pawn with his other knight. “How do you suppose I just stop saying it? I’ve been saying it for years. Everyone called each other that when I was growing up in Birmingham. It’s part of my form-a-tive years,” said Clayton as he stresses every syllable and lets out a big smile when he finishes.
“Guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
“Says Ancient Earl the Early Bird.”
Earl slides a rook into one of Clayton’s knights.
“Sheeeet. You sneaky mutha fucka. Going after my guy, kudos my brotha,” said Clayton. “That reminds me. You don’t speak no newscaster English. I’ve heard you say ‘shit’ more than a farmer in a field full of pigeons. What’s that got say about your Yankee upbringing?”
“Don’t go there.”
Clayton let out a purposely obnoxious laugh. “I know what makes you tick.”
“Yah, I’m real embarrassed of my Minnesota upbringing,” Earl said sarcastically. “Pah-leez. Get outta here with that shit. Minneapolis’ got ‘hoods. Or it had some. You haven’t even been where I grew up.”
“I can say the same. Minneapolis has ‘hoods, but it’s got good schools. Or so I kept hearing when I was youngin. Man, my school was so ghetto our lunch-lady served us imitation grits.” After saying this Clayton moves his remaining bishop into a threatening position.
“Haha, you’re a funny one ain’t you. The joker of the pack.” Earl takes down the bishop with his queen. “To bad there ain’t a joker piece in chess. You would’ve had it mastered.”
“Damn, now my guys are gonna lose faith,” said Clayton as he rubs his chin, feeling his three days’ worth of facial hair growth. “Hang in there men, we have got a king to capture,” he said in his white man imitation accent.
“How has work been anyways? Anything exciting lately?”
“Nope. The usual. Making my runs down through Virginia. Sweet talking some of the finer Homestead ladies. You know, the life of a traveling man. How ‘bout you?”
“Same thing Clay. Well, except for the whole sweet talking business. My wife does just fine, no need to get greedy.”
“Well, if I had one I’d probably think the same.” Clayton moves one of his pawns into a sacrificial position.
“You think? I’m sorry Clay, but I doubt it. You make yourself out to be a too much of a ladies man. I don’t think you would be satisfied with just one woman for the rest of your life. You would probably get greedy and stray from your promises.”
“Well, you know what they say: Once a player…”
“Always a player. That ain’t the best motto to live by, you know.”
“Well, I guess I’ll start using a new one. An apple a day keeps the dentist away. From here on out that’s my fill-os-a-fee,” said Clayton with a big smirk on his face.
“You don’t need a dentist, boy, you need to get your eyes checked.” Earl takes down one of Clayton’s rooks. “And besides, it’s an apple a day keeps the doctor away, dummy.”
“Pfft, just direct me to the nearest optometrist. I didn’t even need that guy anyways. He’s the appendix in my game plan.”
“Then your knights are your hands. The part of the body that does all the work. Well, if that’s the case, you’re looking like an amputee right about now.”
Clayton responded by putting his right hand in his left armpit, pretending like its been amputated, then giving Earl the finger with his left hand.
“Ahh, it’s good to see that your maturity shines through every now and then.”
Now Clayton brings his right hand towards his mouth, pretending to drink a cup of tea. Pinkies out of course. Once he’s done this gesture he puts a big grin on his face.
Shaking his head, Earl said, “I might as well be talking to a mime. But, since you’re in the mood to listen, did I ever tell you about the passenger I had, say, three weeks ago?”
Clayton shakes his head from side to side.
“He was a younger guy, I’ll say around 27 or so, and he was just intolerable. So much so that I’ve been contemplating quitting my job.”
Clayton puts his chin in his hand, his elbow on the table, and exaggerates leaning in. He’s pretending to look highly interested, and doing a good job looking the part.
“We started off in Shady Grove, and all the way to our destination, which was somewhere up near the Pennsylvania border, then back, he talked about how important PR was and how our jobs are essential to Alpha Corp. This went on for nearly five days. I couldn’t stand it. It was like being a chauffeur to a motivational speaker who didn’t know when to stop his speech. The trip was supposed to be around eight days too, but I really hustled my horses so I could get it done as soon as possible. That’s why it only took five.”
Clayton finally broke his silence by saying, “So? Why didn’t you just tune him out? Sing a song in your noggin and just say ‘yep’ or ‘uh huh’ when it was time to talk. You’ve been doing this for years; you ought to know how to zone out by now.”
“I know it shouldn’t have got under my skin, but it did. It got me thinking. If this guy is so bad, think of what the next crop of silencers will be like.” Earl moves a pawn forward.
“So?” said Clayton. “We rarely get interesting folk as it is. It’s just something you gotta deal with.”
“Yah but we’ll have to spend full weeks with these people. If the next set are anything like that goober, how am I supposed to make it through the next few years? I don’t want to be sitting beside a walking talking corporate propaganda machine. Client after client will just be another spokesperson. I might as well go working for a Homestead.”
“Now you’re talking crazy,” Clayton said sincerely. “How many years you got left? Six? Five? Come on. That’s nothing. You’re taking this too seriously. It was just one bad loc. You wouldn’t throw away a sack of apples if you just found one bad one, would ya?”
“No, but I predict that the rest of them will get moldy over time.”
“Get outta here. Never say you wanna go to the Homestead. You and me, we have it easy being buggy boys. We ride around all day getting to look at what the roadside has to offer. It’s travelling. People used to spend a lot of dough travelling, but here we are doing it for work. And you know it’s the horses that are doing most of the work.”
“They don’t have to do any small talk.”
“Look man, I broke my back in my younger days working at a Homestead. Every day I would dream of doing something else,”
“I’ve heard this speech before,” Earl interrupted.
“But you didn’t listen to it. Labor isn’t fun. It’s as simple as that.” Clayton paused for a moment, glanced over at the chessboard, then started talking again. “There’s a reason why us brothers wanted to move off the land, go up north, find jobs in the factories and all that. We was moving our way up. It was gonna lead to something better.”
“Now I’ve lost you. Are you talking about the slave days? Yah, I have a clue as to why they wanted to get off the land. That one’s obvious, but things changed. Besides, most people are laborers now, black or white, it doesn’t matter. I would be like anybody else in the Republic.”
“I wasn’t talking about the slave days. I meant the, what-cha-ma-callit, Jim Crow days when a lot of brothers fled up north.”
“They went up north to escape persecution. You know, get away from segregation and all of that.”
“But they also left the south to get better jobs. Maybe show the rest of America that brothers weren’t good for nothing cotton pickers, they could actually do something that didn’t involve hard labor.”
“And that never panned out too well either. Trust me, I know this stuff. I’m actually from the north, not like somebody.” Earl points a finger at Clayton. “Since when are you a black history professor?”
“I got my Ph.D the other day.” Earl laughed, then Clayton continued, “We’re getting sidetracked. Don’t ya think? All I’m tryna say is that you would be demoting yourself. Our people fought hard to get off the land, and here you are saying you want to get back at it. You sound crazy.”
“The context ain’t the same. At least I wouldn’t have to associate with chirpy PR boys who are on their high horse. Or you for that matter.”
“Yah well, playing chess with me is way better than slaving away in a wheat field.”
“Says you. I’ve only done the first one, so I can’t tell you which one I like more.”
“Well, I can’t wait to hear you bitchin’ about your back. A man in his mid-fifties just ain’t cut out for Homestead work. But on the other side, at least you could keep your nickname. Well, the first bit. Ancient Earl,” Clayton stalled for a second. “The Homestead Pearl.”
A man with a jacket draped over his arm walked through the parking lot towards the tent. He was above average height and looked to be in his mid-fifties. His hair, which had a widows peak but didn’t seem like it was ready to go just yet, was an undeterminable color; it was either light gray or a dark shade of white - if such a thing exists. The man was in good shape though. That much you could figure out. He was thin, but not sickly thin, more in the sense that he looked as though he had the physique of a marathon runner or a cyclist – if those activities were still around.
“How much do you wanna bet that this is my guy?” said Earl.
“Ten smokes sounds like a fair wager,” responded Clayton.
The man walked straight up to their picnic table, behind Earl, and asked, “Are either of you,” before finishing his question he looked at a sheet of paper in his hand, “Clayton Johnson?”
“That would be I,” said Clayton as he puts his right hand right up to Earl’s face then rubs his right thumb between his middle and index finger. The international ‘pay up sucka’ hand signal.
“Okay. I think I have you as a driver.”
“You going down through Virginia?”
“Then I’m your man.”
Clayton got up from the picnic table and prepared his right arm for a handshake. “Clayton Johnson, at your service.”
“Glad to meet you. This is my colleague Ancient Earl Carter, a man who is ten smokes lighter, thanks to you.”
“Huh?” Robert looked puzzled. Earl turned around and offered a handshake, a gesture that Robert accepted.
“Never mind. Let’s get out of here.” Clayton looked at his watch. “We’re a bit behind schedule, so we might as well get movin’.”
“I’m sorry if I kept you waiting,” said Robert. “The train was delayed due to an unloading mishap.”
“Don’t worry about it. In this line of work you’ve got to be good at killing time. Waiting is my expertise.”
“That’s good to hear.”
Clayton then looked at Earl. “Hey Earl, let’s consider this a win for me, eh?”
“No way,” answered Earl. “You might have more pieces on the board, but I still got my king.”
“Well, at least I won something from our time together.”
This was the cue. Earl reached into a jacket that was sitting beside him on the picnic table and took out a metal cylinder. He popped the top off, counted to ten, then handed over ten cigarettes to Clayton. Earl shook his head as Clayton took them away. “Robbing an old man. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Hey, I’ve been ashamed of a lot of things, but taking smokes from an old man is as natural as taking candy from a … well, you know what I’m gonna say. Plus, cancer sticks can kill ya. An old man should be gettin’ his daily fiber, not his daily nicotine.” Clayton had his signature smirk on his face.
“Aren’t you on a tight schedule?” questioned Earl. “Just get outta here. By the time you get back, I hope I’m either at a Homestead or at Shady Grove. That way I wouldn’t have to see your ugly mug anymore.”
“Pfft, you love it.”
Clayton walked along the picnic table and said his goodbyes to all of the other buggy drivers. Once he finished his parting remarks, he led Robert to the stable.
Clayton entered the stable, then soon after came out with two horses, one at each side. The one on his right side was white with splashes of black all over its legs. It looked as though someone sprayed a white horse with a spray paint can, holding the can a few feet away. The other horse was dark brown with a golden mane and tail. Clayton led them over to Robert and introduced them. “Meet Slush,” he said as he jerks his right arm, causing Slush’s bridle to jingle, “and this here is Mudd,” as he does the same with his left arm. “Hold them here so I can go get the harnesses. Gives you some time to get acquainted with em.”
Robert grabbed both of their bridles’ while Clayton went back into the stable to fetch the harnesses. Robert wasn’t too fond of horses, so he wasn’t too happy about being in such close proximity. His earliest memory of riding a horse was not a good one, so instinctively, he has been hesitant in their company ever since. When he was a boy, his mother took him to a ranch and the ranchers put him on top of a horse. He was excited; he had never ridden a horse before. But within a minute of being on the thing, the horse shook himself like a dog out of water, thus sending Robert to the ground. And not just any ground; he fell in a patch of thistles. At the time, he thought they were cactuses, which intensifies the prickleness of the memory. Naturally, this memory has caused him to have deep seated distrust of horses, but they were part of the job, so he just had to cope with them. These ones were pretty docile too, which put Robert at greater ease.
When Clayton returned they put the collars and harnesses on the horses. “Now it’s time we go get the carriage,” stated Clayton once they finished. They walked over to another section of the parking lot, one with twelve or so cars that are neatly ordered. Most of the vehicles are mid-sized SUVs from the late 2010s. Clayton walked up to one of them, patted its side a couple times, then said, “This is your ride for the next however many days.”
Clayton went to the front of the car and reached into it. The engine bay didn’t have a hood, and instead of containing an engine and a battery and all that, the cavity had a metal bar running across it that was welded to each side of the hood. Protruding from this bar were two horizontal bars - the shafts - that would stably connect the horses to the vehicle. There are also two vertical bars that acted to redirect the reins so that the driver could sit comfortably in the driver seat – which lacked a steering wheel - and steer the buggy.
The vehicle itself was so heavily modified that it was hard to recognize, but Robert could faintly make out an emblem on its side. The SUV had been a hybrid – back when it had a motor that is. One of those vehicles that people filled with guilt regarding human’s actions towards the environment preferred to drive. Robert never got the logic in buying a brand new hybrid vehicle. How would manufacturing a brand new vehicle, which would take a number of resources from the earth, then a number of resources to power the machines that built it, then they would have to ship the manufactured vehicle over from another country, which in itself would take a vast amount of resources, then ship it to the respectful person’s city, then the buyer would drive it, which would get more miles per gallon, but would also encourage the driver to drive more because they’re getting more miles per gallon, then eventually, the person would buy another one after three years because they’re vain enough to care about what people think about them based on what vehicle they drive, which would only repeat the cycle … How would all this help reduce ones impact on the environment? If you were so worried about your carbon footprint, it was probably a better idea to just buy an old beater and drive less. Or don’t drive at all. It was some odd logic, but then again, most people thought about things the wrong way. That’s how a libertarian leaning government had led the country into a near agrarian-communist state that’s run by a monopolistic corporation, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. At least this particular hybrid has shelf life – it’s probably worked off its original input by now.
After everything was all hooked up and ready to go, Clayton yelled, “Let’s go.” Robert jumped into the hybrid vehicle, as did Clayton. Clayton lashed the reins and let out a whistle, causing Slush and Mudd to start trotting. They left the parking lot and moved westwards, towards I-95.