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THE PASSENGER by Ted Prokash

Raymond pulled into a Love’s Travel Center somewhere in southern Indiana, shortly before dawn. Their routine for stops had been well established by now. Walter went inside to piss and buy snacks, while Raymond paid for and pumped the gas.

Raymond was STRESSED. He was rather high-anxiety to begin with… and the mission he and Walter were undertaking would have anybody nervous. But Raymond had been prepared for all that. The problem was the mission had gotten off on the wrong foot logistically. He had planned to have his car – a 2004 Subaru Outback with low millage – all freshly serviced for the trip. But he’d run into certain logistical stumbling blocks, circumstances beyond his control, etc. Now, here they were, somewhere in southern Indiana, overdue for an oil change and with 3,000 miles left to drive.

Raymond checked the oil, fretting. He decided to add a quart to be on the safe side.

“Fuck you doin’, man?” Walter inquired quite amicably, a bag of spicy pork rinds in one hand and a 20-oz Red Bull in the other.

Raymond bristled underneath the hood, concentrating on pouring the oil through the little paper funnel. He was already getting tired of Walter’s lack of seriousness. “I’m trying to make sure we don’t break down somewhere in the fucking Appalachian Mountains, that’s what,” he said.

“Shit, man, I thought you had this whip all tightened up. Don’t freeze our here now,” Walter advised as he ducked inside the car.

It was damn cold, even 500 miles south of home.

*

Somewhere south of Louisville, Kentucky. Dawn breaking in the eastern sky. Walter had his phone plugged into the Subaru’s cigarette lighter, playing rap music at a moderate volume. The airwaves around these parts were dominated by country music, bible thumpers and right-wing firebrands. The Subaru was equipped with a CD player, but of course, the CDs themselves were all in landfills. Since Raymond mistrusted cell phone technology, Walter was in charge of the music – largely by default. Raymond would have preferred to drive in silence, not because he didn’t like the music, but because the demands of the mission made a constant clamor in his mind, requiring his constant diligent attention. “What are we listening to?” he asked.

“Lil B,” Walter said. Then, in response to Raymond’s honky silence, “Lil B the BasedGod. We can turn something else on if you want. I think I got some… Metallica on here… some Alice In Chains and shit.”

Raymond waved it off. “No, this is good. I just didn’t recognize it.” Walter offered him the bag of pork rinds. “No thanks.”

Walter picked out a choice piece of pig skin and halved it with a crunch that rang out over the down-low stylings of the BasedGod. Crunch, crunch. “There was some fucked up graffiti in that bathroom back there, man.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. There was the usual shit, you know, pictures of dicks, gay shit, so and so is a ho at this phone number. But there was some raw racist shit too, fucking swastikas. ‘Only good nigger’s a dead nigger’, ‘Hitler was right’, ‘Kill the Jews’…”

“Fucking Christ!” Raymond spat. “Fucking ignorant hicks. Like, I get that the Nazi imagery was a thing with the early punk bands and shit. The Stooges did it, a lot of those bands did, but the time for that shit is past.” Raymond shook his head. “That kind of shock value’s just not relevant anymore, man.”

The two drove on in a thoughtful silence.

*

Miami, Florida. Seventy five degrees in the dead of winter, the sunshine infusing everything like an extremely clean form of speed.

Raymond and Walter were ragged, strung out from the road. After 24 hours of hard driving, they’d finally pulled over under a tall palm tree on a quiet side street about a hundred and fifty feet from Iggy Pop’s door. Here they waited out the small hours of morning, watching for any sign of their mark. As the sun climbed in the sky, Walter started getting restless. “Man, I gotta get a coffee or something,” he said, stretching and rubbing his eyes.

“We can’t give up our position now,” Raymond said.

Walter was less than impressed. “Man, if anybody’s worried about us, they know we’re here already. I saw a little place a block back that way and a block back down the street we came in on. I’m going to take a walk. You want anything?”

Raymond grumbled under his breath. “Coffee,” he said.

Fine time for him to make a scene, Raymond thought. He screwed up his eyes and studied the house for any kind of movement. He hadn’t slept more than an hour in the last twenty four and he’d hardly eaten a thing, but Raymond was wired. They were so close now. If they pulled this off…

Raymond took a warm swig of water from a bottle he found under his seat.

This whole crazy plan was only a couple weeks old, but the impetus behind it had been brewing for longer than Raymond had been alive. The zeitgeist of popular despair, the American cultural train wreck, speeding toward a suicide soma solution… Iggy was one of the original reactionaries to this very thing, one of the first to test the merits of kamikaze art. Then, the suicide trip was rushed to crescendo by the digital revolution, you know, ‘watch out now ‘cause I’m using technology’… Raymond knew intrinsically that Iggy was someone who might be able to give him, if not answers, at least some perspective, some idea.

Then, the chance encounter with the record collector from Miami. Raymond was soliciting a first pressing of the first Stooges album. This cat happened to mention that – slap my ass and I’ll be damned – Iggy Pop lived a block from his home. He sees him quite regularly. That’s when Raymond had his thunderbolt revelation. It was like he was visited by an angel that said, “Go and seek Iggy out. In him you will find the truth.” He brought Walter along because – well, for one thing, Walter was easy company – but most of all, Walter was a gun person. He was always strapped. Touched by an angel or not, Raymond was still practical. The great Iggy Pop might need a little convincing as to the righteousness of his mission.

Walter returned from his coffee run. He climbed into the car, whistling to himself, making no attempt at all to be inconspicuous. The Subaru filled with the smell of deep fried something.

“What are those?” Raymond asked with a testy edge. The smell was doing a number on his voracious senses and his knotted gut.

“Oh, these? These croquettes. They’re delicious, man, have some.”

Raymond popped a croquette into his mouth. “That is good.” He noticed Walter had come back with just one small cup of coffee. “They run out of coffee?”

“Hmm? Oh, no man. This Cuban coffee. This enough for both of us.” Walter put the coffee on the dash and set out two plastic cups the size of thimbles. “See, how they make it is they pack the sugar in the bottom, then they put the coffee on top – and it’s strong coffee…” Walter paused mid-sentence. “Is that your boy right there?” he said, pointing casually.

Raymond looked up and, sure enough, there he was: the weird and wiry street-walking cheetah, in the flesh and a dark pair of sunglasses. Whether or not his heart was still full of napalm, was exactly what Raymond intended to find out.

Iggy crossed the street and walked right at the Subaru, coming up on the passenger side.

“He’s coming to your side, man, stop him!” Raymond panicked.

Walter leaned out of the window, still casual. “Hey, excuse me sir. Can we talk to you for a minute?”

Iggy peered inside the car, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. “What’s up, brother?” That unmistakable snarl.

Raymond’s excitement bubbled over. He practically climbed on top of Walter. “Hey Iggy. We’d just like a few moments of your time. Just a few questions. Is there someplace we can go to talk?”

Iggy recoiled. “I’m sorry guys, I’m just trying to go down the street and get a cup of coffee, alright?”

“Well, we could come with you. I’ll buy you a cup…”

“Listen, you’re going to have to get a hold of my agent if you want an interview.” Iggy began to retreat.

That’s when Walter, in a motion that was lightning-quick yet somehow unhurried, pulled his 9-millimeter and pointed it square at the godfather of punk. “Tell you what man, why don’t you just get in the car. We’ll go for a ride and have a little talk. No problems.” Walter motioned toward the back seat. “Just get in the car.”

Iggy took a step toward the Subaru, his palms turned up. He reached tentatively for the handle of the car door. But instead of opening the door he brought his hand down in a fast karate chop, knocking the 9-mm into Walter’s lap. He took off like a shot.

“Shit man!” Walter fumbled for the gun. Iggy was already sprinting down an alley.

Raymond opened his door. Then he shut it again. “What the fuck are you doing, man!? You pull your fucking piece?!”

“That old boy’s quicker than shit! You see that?”

Raymond fired up the Subaru and peeled off. He whipped a U-turn and took a left. They spotted Iggy running down a busy street. “Fuck!” Iggy ducked into a little shopping center, out of sight. “Fuck! What do we do?”

“Just keep driving, man,” Walter advised. Raymond tried to pull over and park, but they were caught in a heavy wave of traffic. “Ray, I aint gonna jump out this car and chase that motherfucker down, I don’t know about you. Just keep driving.”

Iggy was fucking gone.

*

Somewhere south of Atlanta, Georgia. Beating a mad retreat from Miami, from their failed mission. Panic and shame running 80 miles per hour. Walter was at the wheel. Raymond was next to him, not asleep, but practically catatonic with despair.

The flow of traffic started getting heavy. They were nearing the city. Walter flipped on the right turn signal and eased the Subaru into the far right lane. He veered onto an exit ramp.

“What are you doing? This is a weird place to pull off. Why don’t you get us past the city at least?”

“We gotta make a stop here.”

“This is a bad place, man. We need to put some miles between us and that… that fucking mess back there.” Raymond shook his head. “I still can’t believe you pulled your fucking gun.”

Walter wore that half-smile that never seemed to leave his face. He maintained the calm demeanor that seemed his permanent state. “You remember where I’m from, Raymond?”

Raymond squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, shutting his eyes tightly. “Yeah… um, you’re from Georgia. Somewhere in Georgia.”

Walter smiled. “That’s right. Little hood outside of Atlanta called Park Heights. You know how I’m always so chill at work? How I just laugh when people be freakin’ out about their kid’s got a cold, or their transmission goes out or some shit? I’m just thinking how back in Park Heights you got to worry about gettin’ shot just walkin’ down the fucking street.”

“That’s fucked up,” Raymond admitted.

“Yup. Now Raymond, why do you think I agreed to drive all this way with you, looking for some old grandpa motherfucker used to sing in some rock band? I know you wanted me along for muscle, Ray, ‘cause I got a gun. I know that shit.” He put his hand on Raymond’s shoulder, chuckling.

“Dude, my whole family is here. All my old friends, my moms…”

Raymond was quiet for a while. He had never considered that they’d be driving right by Walter’s old stomping grounds. He watched the city filling in around them. “Can we get some food, at least?”

Walter put on a hurt expression. “Man we’re visiting my mom. She will cook for your ass. That’s called southern hospitality. You motherfuckers up in Wisconsin might not know about that shit.”

Walter guided the Subaru through a typical urban tableaux. Check cashing places, liquor stores, fried chicken stands. Folks hanging out on front stoops, sipping from bottles sheathed in brown paper bags, watching the traffic with long, bored looks.

“We’re gonna get you some soul food, Raymond.”

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