My companion whistled quietly, and absently sipped his café au lait as he scanned the fields beyond the interstate. Unable to hold back my frustration, I cursed every war-mongering pundit. “What do you think of all of this?” I asked him. I figured the coffee bought me that much.
He looked down at the dial, set his cup between his knees, and slowly turned to face me with his fingers stuck in his ears. “Mutha-fuckas crazier than a shithouse rat!”
I shrank the volume to a low murmur. “What’s that?”
The old man smiled.
“Ever hear of ‘The Creature from Jekyll Island?’” he asked.
“Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?”
He looked at me like I was nuts. “No, ain’t Jekyll and Hyde.” He shuffled around in his bag. “It’s a book.”
He pulled out a thick paperback with Memphis Community Library markings on the spine. “It’s a reference book.”
“Explains how the world really works.”
“Don’t believe me?”
“Just a funny title for such a serious message is all.”
“Here, have mine.” He plopped it on the back seat. “I’ll trade it to you for the coffee and the ride.”
“What’s your name?” I hoped to change the subject.
“Joshua Boyd 0672, but brothers call me Pappy Freak On.”
“Yeah, like, ‘Listen here baby ’cause I’m about to get my freak on.”
The road turned to coarse gravel in an area of asphalt maintenance. Recovering to smooth road, I turned off the radio.
“Thank you,” he said. “They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”
“I know.” He hadn’t given me much, but at least some commiseration.
I drove all day, stopping only for lunch. As the sun approached an orange-juice and grenadine decline, I began looking for campsites along the roadway. Hours of silence put Pappy to sleep. His head bounced against the window during a few rough patches of road. Tired and irritable, I was beginning to crave solitude.
After a few more miles a sign for a campground beckoned.“Yo! Freak On…”
“Listen, man, I’m done driving for today.”
“It’s cool, it’s cool,” he said, until becoming fully awake and aware of his surroundings. “Want me gone?”
My mind called forth scenes of worst-case scenarios. Pappy could run off with the car, kill me, hold me hostage, or make me his gimp. Pushing back the devilish thoughts, I replied, “Hey, man, it’s up to you.”
Conversation halted as the Cavalier’s headlights scanned the tree line for an empty site. Comforted by the number of fellow campers cooking dinner in their fire pits, I parked and killed the engine.
Pappy scanned me, as if searching for cracks. “Could stay a bit,” he mused.
“OK,” I said, opening my door, longing to stretch my legs.
He got out on the other side and took in the scene. “Isn’t this wonderful? Pilgrims gathering together. Shame more people don’t get this.”
I lit the gas stove with a match and considered his words. Using my pocket knife as an opener, I emptied black beans into a skillet and boiled water on the other burner for rice. Tent poles in place, I snagged the whiskey from my pack. “Drink?” I offered, tipping it back.
Pappy shook his head. “Thanks,” he said.
My army-surplus mess kit had a little wing-nut that turned to open the lid, and revealed two shallow bowls. When we’d finished eating, Pappy stood up and scanned the area, as if looking elsewhere for shelter. “I think I might take that drink now,” he said.
Two hours later, the bottle was empty, and Pappy was still unspooling theories about the way the world worked. “Tell everyone the truth about the Federal Reserve,” he said. “It’s a private bank that has no right controlling our money and our lives. Reinstate the gold standard. Short of that, we all slaves.”
Too worn out to build a fire, I curled up in my sleeping bag and drifted off. When I crawled out of my warm cocoon into the chill morning air, I saw Pappy sitting on a stump with his eyes closed, leaning up against the side of the car. Not wanting to disturb him, I didn’t say good morning. I took down the tent, made a pair of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, brushed my teeth, and sipped a cup of vending-machine coffee while chatting with other travelers heading west. I came back to find that Pappy had barely moved. I wasn’t sure what to do. The noise of cleaning up the site should have roused him. I hesitated to touch him for fear of a defensive reaction. The last thing I needed was a broken wrist. Ready to go, I fired up the engine and within seconds, he was on his feet looking in. Reaching over, I unlocked his door.
“You might be the heaviest sleeper I ever met,” I said, shifting the car into drive.
Pappy looked over. “Sleep’s a great refuge.”
Not knowing what to say, I handed him a PB&J wrapped in a paper napkin. “Hungry?”
His eyes lit up. “Thank you, kindly.”
Back on Interstate 76 heading west, I flitted with the radio, but decided to ride quietly. The Cavalier moved easily on the flat surface. Plowed fields dotted with patches of trees as wind barriers around barns and houses flew past on either side.
Finishing his sandwich, Pappy said, “I’ll just get off at the next city: Columbus, I think. Couple shelters there. Then south before winter gets too bad.”
“See that plane that keeps flying back and forth up there?” he asked. “See how its spray hang up there? They’re trying to control the weather.”
“Why?” I was unsure what he was talking about.
“Create floods and tornados…”
“You’re crazy!” I laughed.
“Why else Monsanto patenting aluminum-resistant seeds?”
Noticing the gas gauge was a quarter full, I pulled off the first exit ramp, got out at the only station, and refueled. The gauge stopped at $27.78, so I bumped it up to an even $28 and went inside the store. A small portion was set up like a burger joint. The smell of grease jolted my senses. I ordered two large fries and grabbed a bottle of water on my way to the register.
Back outside, Pappy was gone.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.